ActivePaper Archive MAKING THE MOST OF IT - Reading Eagle, 2017-04-12

MAKING THE MOST OF IT

Berks business leaders see positives in Penn Street Bridge work

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READING EAGLE: BILL UHRICH

The traffic headaches on the Penn Street Bridge promise to intensify as the ongoing construction work does, and forums on Tuesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel focused on the best ways for businesses to cope with the pain.

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READING EAGLE: LAUREN A. LITTLE

PennDOT spokesman Ronald J. Young, left, and Matt Boyer, executive director of commuter services of Pennsylvania, on Tuesday address a meeting at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel about the Penn Street Bridge construction.

There will be pain, that much is sure.

But just how much, that’s yet to be determined. And ultimately it depends on the reaction.

The Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry held a pair of informational sessions Tuesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel to provide updates on the ongoing Penn Street Bridge construction project. The morning session was focused on what the project will mean for local businesses.

“This is really impactful to downtown Reading,” Berks County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt said.

The $42.5 million project to repair the 1913 bridge, which stretches across the Schuylkill River as the main connection between Reading and West Reading, began in December and will continue through the end of 2019. The work is needed because the bridge has become structurally deficient.

“We want people to be able to safely get in and out of Reading,” said Ronald J. Young Jr., PennDOT spokesman.

Fewer lanes ahead

During construction, the flow of traffic in and out of the city will likely slow. Starting next month the bridge will shrink from four lanes to three.

Brian Teles of Garnett Fleming, an engineer on the project, said the traffic pattern will be two lanes westbound and one lane eastbound for the majority of the project. For the last few months there will be only one lane open in each direction.

That is being done so the bridge can be repaired piece by piece, starting with the northern side and later moving to the southern.

The project also involves closing the entrance ramp to the bridge from westbound Route 422 starting sometime in May; it will remain shut until fall 2019.

Exact dates for the traffic changes depend on work currently being done, including moving all sorts of utility lines that run through or below the bridge.

But when they do happen, it will undoubtedly create a bit of traffic chaos. And that has implications for city businesses.

“We understand it’s going to disrupt people’s lives,” said W. Glenn Steckman III, the city’s managing director.

Steckman said it’s also clear that many of the businesses in Reading operate on thin margins and a minor disruption could cause big problems.

But if ways can be found to surpass those hurdles and survive, he said, a better Reading would be the end result of the bridge project and a host of street projects taking place in the city this summer.

“In the long run, you’re going to see a major improvement in street conditions and bridge conditions,” he said.

Coping strategies

Some of the ways businesses can deal with the challenges caused by the bridge project are simple.

Barnhardt said large employers can look into staggering start and end times for employees, something the county has already done to help with rush hour traffic.

Businesses also should make sure to keep their employees and customers informed about traffic situations.

Craig E. Poole, general manager at the Double-Tree, said the hotel had begun sending out updated directions and traffic advisories to anyone who books a room.

Poole said the key to dealing with the potential traffic issues is to look at them as an opportunity.

“We don’t run from it, we embrace it,” he said.

Poole said that he plans to shift how the hotel handles coffee and desserts at functions it hosts, providing them in the foyer after the event to help spread out the departing traffic.

He also said big draws like the hotel or the Santander Arena need to stay in contact to make sure big events aren’t happening at multiple downtown locations at the same time.

Michael Leifer, owner of the Peanut Bar, shared Poole’s optimism.

He said businesses need to find ways to keep people in the city, perhaps by doing something like hosting happy hours.

The construction crews working on the bridge project also offer an opportunity, he said, especially for restaurants and bars.

“Give them a reason to come to your place,” Leifer said.

Meanwhile, on South Fifth

Aside from concerns about the impact on businesses, the other main issue brought up at Tuesday’s morning session was about traffic on South Fifth Street.

Isamac Torres-Figueroa, who lives in that area, said the street is already a mess in the morning and afternoon because of Tyson-Schoener Elementary School and St. Peter’s School. Traffic is often slowed because of school buses, double-parked cars and students crossing the street.

Because the main detour for the closed ramp from westbound Route 422 to Penn Street will use the Lancaster Avenue exit and South Fifth Street — a secondary detour will use Wyomissing Boulevard and Park Road — that will force even more traffic into that area.

A handful of suggestions were floated to deal with the problem, including banning street parking on the stretch or making South Sixth Street two ways. Officials said they will have to work with the city school district to try to find a fix.

An evening informational meeting touched on many of the same points the as the morning session.

About 13 people attended the evening meeting, many of them elected officials or business representatives.

Lifelong Reading resident Mike Lerch, 54, said he was impressed by the level of cooperation and optimism among local officials and city businesses.

“The communication between the different groups is incredible,” Lerch said after the meeting. “The meeting was very interesting.”

At the meeting, Lerch looked over the designs of what the bridge will look like once completed.

How about those lights?

One added feature will be lighting under the bridge arches to show off the entrance into Reading.

Lerch, a cabinet maker with a business in the city, wanted to know how much those lights will cost city taxpayers.

Alan D. Piper, senior Berks transportation planner, said the city will be responsible for the lights, but he did not know their cost.

“The lighting looked really cool,” Lerch said. “And I like that business and the city are working to have more signs and they are looking at what we can do to make business better (during the bridge renovations).”

For more information on the Penn Street Bridge project or for updates visit Reading-Bridges.net.

(Reading Eagle reporter Anthony Orozco contributed to this story.)

Contact David Mekeel: 610-371-5014 or dmekeel@readingeagle.com.