Impact of unprecedented growth and shifting commute patterns
Chester County has recently experienced unprecedented increases in population and employment growth . This growth, in combination with regional changes in housing and employment, has transformed the commuting patterns and effectively changed the county from a "bedroom community" to a regional employment center. Growth in suburb-to-suburb commuting has shifted travel patterns away from the traditional commuting patterns that the region's transportation infrastructure was built to accommodate, primarily travel to and from Philadelphia. As a result of these fairly dramatic shifts in commuting, the county has experienced continued growth in single-occupant vehicle usage and an increased demand for last mile bus connections from rail stations for "reverse commuters". The result of these changes is an unprecedented strain on the county's transportation system across all transportation modes.
Infrastructure improvements needed for revitalization efforts
Transportation infrastructure improvements in the form of roadway capacity and connections, new bridges, and transit projects are integral components of revitalization efforts for various urban centers throughout the county. Unfortunately, funding limitations have constrained the availability of funding for new infrastructure investment as limited funding is being focused towards the maintenance of the existing transportation infrastructure.
Addressing the transportation implications of suburban growth
Significant development growth over the last 30 years has occurred outside of the county's urban centers and villages. Unfortunately, the predominant suburban landscape is largely dependent on automobile access and contains many challenges for alternative transportation modes, including an incomplete sidewalk network, a lack of connectivity (both street and pedestrian) among neighboring land uses, and limited transit amenities. Among the transportation implications of this land pattern is an increase in automobile usage, a limited practicality of walking and bicycling, a limited feasibility of cost-effective public transportation solutions, and an overall need of supplying mobility alternatives to those unable to drive and those who would simply prefer not to drive.
Overlapping conflicts between land use and transportation policies
The inter-related nature of land use and transportation policies, and their respective implications, has, inevitably, created a need for balance between various policies. Examples include:
- Reducing congestion vs. increasing transit usage;
- Improving safety vs. reducing congestion;
- Increasing capacity vs. managing outward growth and open space preservation;
- Widening roadways vs. minimizing stormwater runoff;
- Improving transportation mobility vs. minimizing community impacts;
- Providing additional capacity vs. reducing vehicle miles of travel (VMT) and air pollution; and
- Accommodating suburban land use vs. promoting alternative transportation modes.
Limited funding and overwhelming demand
Efforts to address the county's transportation needs are limited by the availability of funding. While funding levels have gradually increased, the buying power has been significantly reduced by recent escalations in construction materials. The construction cost index has increased 100 percent since 1996. Funding levels have not kept pace with the rate of material inflation. The effect of this funding shortage has been a significant backlog of capital projects, a priority towards system-maintenance, an increased reluctance towards system or capacity expansion and an increased interest in alternative financing, including roadway tolling and asset privatization.
Growing demand to walk and bike, but limited, safe facilities
The Landscapes2 public opinion survey documented county residents' frustration with congestion and their preference towards alternative modes of travel such as walking and biking. Overall, there is a limited supply of safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities within the county. The lack of sidewalk facilities, lack of dedicated bikeway facilities (bike lanes, multi-use trails) , narrow roadways, high traffic volumes, and busy intersections create safety and mobility issues for non-motorized modes. The effect of this limited infrastructure is that it discourages walking, biking, and transit usage and requires additional driving even for short activities and errands. This is occurring at a time when walking and bicycling is more popular due to the rising price of gas and a strong movement for healthier living.
Pedestrian accommodation in the suburban environment
Suburban land uses within the county are frequently criticized for their lack of design, diversity, and density, with a lack of amenities for pedestrian, cyclists, and transit users. Additionally, residential development designs that contain cul-de-sac and dead-end streets discourage walking, unless access easements are obtained for sidewalk cut-through. Land use decisions have clear implications on the transportation alternatives that are available for county residents.
Developing multi-use trails is an alternative to traditional sidewalks that is appealing in suburban and rural settings. Multi-use trails have emerged locally and regionally as a recreation and transportation alternative for residents. While strong municipal interest exists and an extensive trail network has been planned within the county, only a few miles have been completed. There has been community resistance and residential opposition to some planned public trails, yet after their completion, multi-use trails are generally viewed as a community asset. Additionally, some municipalities have expressed concerns regarding the liability of multi-use trails and the maintenance of on-road bike lanes.
Conflicts and coordination with other modes
The conflict between vehicles and pedestrians is widespread. Urban centers must be able to provide safe pedestrian flow, yet many of those pedestrians drive into the centers. Roadways sometimes create barriers that inhibit walking, particularly in suburban areas and rural centers. Bicyclists have also noted various roadway design issues that currently affect or restrict bicycling, including drainage grates, steel grid bridges, narrow bridges, and "oil-and-chip" resurfacing. In all cases, traffic signal timings and road designs should balance the needs of moving motorized vehicles while safely accommodating non-motorized traffic. All transportation improvements should take into account design elements that promote and enhance walking and bicycling.
In addition to roadway design, the transit system should provide better access for both bicyclists and pedestrians. In particular, the success of transit within the county is intrinsically tied to the pedestrian network because every transit rider at some point is a pedestrian. Many train stations have poor pedestrian access and limited bicycle parking. Also, most bus stops lack pedestrian connections to the surrounding land uses and other amenities, such as shelters and benches. These deficiencies in the infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians may be limiting transit usage.
Land use patterns have not warranted public transportation
Land use patterns within the county play a defining role in determining the nature and effectiveness of public transportation within the county. Based on 2000 US Census data, one-third of the county's population was within one-quarter mile of public transportation. Yet, residential growth has largely occurred outside of the current public transportation service area. Moreover, while employment growth has generally occurred within the existing public transportation service area, new employment centers have emerged away from highest levels of public transit service.
While demand exists to expand the coverage and frequency of transit beyond present service areas, research suggests that land use densities of at least four units per acre are necessary to sustain minimum levels of public transportation. Therefore, outside of the county's urban areas, major commercial arterials, residential, and employment densities are generally too low to warrant cost-effective, open-door, public transportation service. In areas with low density development, the cost of long bus routes with limited ridership becomes inefficient and expensive.
Suburban land uses within the county are frequently designed for the automobile and lack sidewalks, thus discouraging walking and transit usage. Within Chester County, many train stations still have pedestrian impediments and most bus stops lack pedestrian connections. Therefore, despite having a favorable location and density, the site design of land uses that may generate transit ridership, such as shopping and office centers, is precluding the practicality of taking transit and walking.
Passenger rail investment and expansion
While some capital investment in public transportation has been made in the county, additional passenger rail investment is needed. The R5, Chester County's only regional rail line, is the most heavily traveled branch in the SEPTA system. While SEPTA has expanded station parking (and additional expansion is planned), parking is currently limited at the county's most accessible rail stations such as Paoli and Exton. There is strong interest in expanding rail service to unserved urban centers such as Coatesville, Parkesburg and Atglen, as well as Phoenixville and to the West Chester area. Funding limitations and policies towards system maintenance have deferred considerations for rail expansions. As the demand for expanded public transportation grows, so to will the demand for increased funding.
Overcoming existing bus limitations
While buses can be a flexible, cost-effective public transportation mode, there are limitations that potentially impact ridership, such as parking availability and bus travel speed. There are few parking opportunities for bus riders. Given the land use patterns of the county, providing parking would greatly expand bus service areas beyond the standard one-quarter mile walking distance. Additionally, the service speed of buses is not competitive with travel speeds by car. Without any form of prioritization, bus operations are equally subject to congestion on roadways. Therefore, any increase in congestion, equally affects bus travel speeds.
Fulfilling special transportation needs
Within the county, there is a need to provide an alternative to the car for those unable or not desiring to drive. Employers and community services within the county have cited the difficulty of providing accessibility for their workers, patients, clients, and residents. Human service providers have noted that there is a growing proportion of "non-qualifying" residents who are not eligible for paratransit service, but need transportation assistance. As the number of elderly in the county will grow over the next 20 years and residential growth continues to expand into suburban and rural landscapes, the demand for expanding public transportation services and transportation alternatives will continue to increase.
Impacts of deficient bridges
Bridges provide vital links within the county's transportation network. Many of the bridge structures within the county are over 50 years old, including those that support expressways . Over time bridges begin to deteriorate because of various environmental elements, vehicular impacts, or aging. When the condition of a bridge limits its ability to accommodate certain vehicular traffic the bridge may be considered "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete". Performing regular maintenance helps to extend the life of a bridge. The maintenance responsibility for each bridge is determined by ownership, which may include state, county, or municipality. However, there is insufficient funding at all levels (state, county, local) for the repair or replacement of bridges in Chester County and emergency bridge repairs cause greater budgetary strains.
There are several major bridge structures within the county that will require costly replacements. As part of bridge replacement projects, accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians, clearances for truck and rail, and coordination with revitalization efforts are several issues that may need to be addressed.
Bridge deficiencies impact surrounding communities. Bridge postings cause detours and delays for school buses, emergency vehicles, goods movement and more. Traffic diversions created from bridge closures have a significant impact on local access roads and local businesses.
Balancing historic bridge preservation with safety and capacity improvements
There is a wealth of historic bridges in the county that need to be preserved and protected. In Chester County there are 24 stone arch bridges and 15 covered bridges. Twenty-eight bridges in the county are listed on National Historic Inventory (NHI) and six are eligible for inclusion on the NHI. Without consideration of context sensitive solutions for each bridge, there is a risk of losing local character that helps to define a community.
Congestion continues to be a priority transportation concern for Chester County, as expressed in the Landscapes2 public opinion survey and focus group discussions. Highway congestion in Chester County is simple to define—more demand or volume on a specific road or intersection than its given capacity. Chester County is experiencing increased congestion largely brought on by the dramatic population and employment growth. Other issues that contribute to congestion in the county include poorly coordinated traffic signals, unmanaged driveway access along commercial corridors, and inflexible work hours by major employers.
Travel time surveys conducted by Planning Commission staff over a nine year period have documented decreasing peak travel speeds on a wide sampling of the county's major road system. Conversely, there have not been significant increases in the capacity of the highway network. As a result, peak hour congestion on major roads forces traffic to divert to adjacent roads and increase the community impacts of congestion.
There is not a simple solution to address and manage congestion. In fact, congestion is sometimes viewed as a sign of economic health and vitality in a community. At the same time, congestion has been cited as a fact that limits redevelopment and wastes time, energy, and money. Creating new roadway capacity is a common solution, but it can induce unanticipated, unplanned development in adjacent areas.
- Physical roadway conditions contribute to safety problems
Safety problems are widely distributed throughout all landscapes in the county. The causes of problems include: the need for intersection channelization, poor access management, pedestrian and bicycle conflicts, sight distance problems, poor intersection alignment and the improper mix of higher speed through traffic with slower local traffic. Efforts to address these safety issues are limited by the fact that many roads have limited right-of-way widths that are constrained by environmental features, walls, trees, shrubs, and utilities.
- A balance between scenic preservation, safety, and mobility
Many roadways within the county can be described as "bucolic" and are valued as a scenic asset . These roadways generally have narrow travel lanes and little, if any, shoulders which causes safety hazards for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Residents throughout the county have expressed concern that widening rural roadways will increase speeding, encourage more traffic, and thus increase safety concerns. Therefore, a conflict exists between widening a roadway for the benefit of improving user safety and mobility and maintaining the scenic qualities the roadway.
- Driver distractions contributing to safety problems
Consistent with regional and national trends, young drivers (under 25) are involved in a disproportionately high percentage of accidents in Chester County. Additionally, cell phone usage is a growing roadway safety concern. The familiarity of roundabouts for county residents is limited. While there are various driver education efforts that are ongoing in the county, a lack of driver education and experience and driver distractions remain contributing factors to roadway safety problems.
Aging infrastructure creates widespread maintenance needs
While the county's transportation infrastructure is an incredible asset, roadway maintenance concerns are present throughout the county on all types of roads, from expressways to local roads. Most of the county's expressways were built nearly 50 years ago and many rural roads have not been significantly upgraded to contemporary standards. The shoulders, bridges, ramps, and roadbeds need extensive reconstruction. The continued maintenance and even reconstruction of these roadways is very costly and will only increase over time.
Limited means for leveraging alternative funding
In light of the funding shortage for transportation improvements, there is a need to leverage capital funding through alternative means. However, few opportunities exist for municipalities to leverage transportation funds, and their usage within the county has been limited. Ten municipalities have enacted traffic impact fee ordinances (Act 209); Transportation Partnerships (Act 47) have been used by two municipalities; PennDOT has used Highway Occupancy Permits (HOP) as a means to fund improvements; many municipalities rely on informal developer negotiations to leverage improvement funding.
Balancing supply and demand to support land uses and alternative modes
Parking is an integral part of the redevelopment and revitalization of urban centers throughout Chester County. Without adequate, safe, and convenient parking, revitalization efforts are limited. Off-street parking in the form of structured parking (while very expensive), has been widely accepted as a critical element in bringing customers, clients and businesses back into the urban setting.
While parking offers distinct economic benefits, providing excessive parking may impact other planning policies. For example, providing free parking at employment and commercial centers and institutions in suburban landscapes encourages auto-dependencies, contributes to air and water quality concerns, and discourages public transit usage.
As traffic congestion increases in Chester County, with limited funding for new road capacity, parking strategies have emerged as a critical tool of travel demand management. Throughout the county, many park and ride lots and regional rail parking lots are positive success stories. Yet, to encourage further public transit use, additional parking is needed at train stations, along bus corridors, and at road junctions with park and ride lots. Additionally, some urban areas require improved parking management, marketing and signing.
Location, location, location
Plans providing for the movement of Chester County's residents must also provide for the movement of goods and services through and within the county. Chester County is centrally located in the northeastern part of the United States within three hours driving distance to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Both location and strong economic picture make Chester County a strategic location in the movement of goods and services. Many economic development opportunities are available because Chester County's location provides distributors with access to over 40 percent of the nation's disposable income . Shippers rely on major roadway and rail corridors to reach their destinations in a timely and cost-effective manner. The ability for roads to provide mobility and access is an important factor in goods movement, particularly in urban areas.
Anticipated growth will strain existing road and rail systems
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) predicts "by the year 2020, at even moderate rates of economic growth, the total domestic tonnage of freight carried by all US freight systems will increase 67 percent and international trade will nearly double." This anticipated growth and the increased port activities in Philadelphia and Wilmington will put a strain on Chester County roads and railroads. More global goods movement issues, such as congestion of west coast ports and manufacturing shifts from Asia to Malaysia, will also have the potential to impact on the county's transportation system.
Current infrastructure impedes the movement of goods by truck
Although rail freight is projected to increase, trucks continue to be the dominant mode. The presence of heavy truck volumes traveling along our major corridors requires the need to address safety concerns. Roads that carry higher volumes of trucks require more frequent improvements due to the impacts of the heavy vehicles on pavement. The increasing size and weight of trucks requires planning for more durable roads, wider turning radii, sufficient bridge capacity, and appropriate height of underpasses. Some existing intersections, road geometry, and steep grades impede the movement of goods.
Other issues arise as trucks deliver goods within communities. Truck traffic around generators such as quarries, landfills and business centers impacts local roads. Congestion also occurs on major roadways in urban areas when trucks are forced to load/unload from the street.
Challenges to safely moving goods by rail
Rail freight presents many opportunities to improve future goods movement. A freight train can help reduce congestion and improve air quality by taking 150 or more trucks off of the road. Rail freight is beneficial for trips greater than 500 miles and for moving heavier loads such as coal or oil. Goods shipped by sea are typically carried in large metal containers that can be quickly transferred to a truck trailer or rail car.
Chester County has experienced a loss of significant rail infrastructure and improvements are needed to maintain the existing system. Much of the existing short line rail infrastructure is not capable of handling the heavier freight cars that are becoming the industry standard. At-grade crossings, low clearance bridges that limit double-stacking, and coordination with passenger rail services are some of the issues that will require greater interagency coordination and capital investments in rail infrastructure.
Airports reaching capacity
The Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) serves as the principal commercial airport for Chester County and the region. The Philadelphia Airport is reaching its capacity, which will increase demand for alternate locations and reliever opportunities. Chester County currently has three "reliever" airports and two heliports that can support and complement PHL. With the growing use of smaller corporate jets, Chester County airports may experience greater use serving corporate interests to avoid security delays and congestion at commercial airports. Airport capacity limitations and highway access problems enhance the need for regional planning for aviation.