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HIGHWAY CONSTRUCTION Some say cure worse than disease for Pa. road-paving project



Published: Sat, June 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Along Interstates 70 and 79, lines can be up to 10 miles long.

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) -- A $2.8 million highway project is supposed to make travel along one of the busiest highways in the nation a little less rough, but some motorists and others are complaining that the road to a solution is paved with major gridlock.

Drivers can sit in traffic for hours in lines as long as 10 miles along Interstates 70 and 79 near Washington, about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. A state lawmaker, as well as police and fire officials, is growing weary of the traffic jams.

"Having a smooth road surface is a cure that's worse than the disease. We're in gridlock here," said Donald Zofchak, police chief in South Strabane Township, just north of Washington along Interstate 79.

Long delays

The highway project has created a bottleneck at the junction of the two major highways, which branch off to well-traveled state routes, as cars and trucks jockey to merge into a single lane. About 61,000 vehicles, one-fifth of them tractor-trailers, travel through Washington on Interstate 70 each day.

State transportation officials acknowledge that they hadn't expected the gridlock. However, they said that little can be done except wait until the two-mile project is completed sometime in August.

"This has been a real challenge. ... We didn't anticipate backups this long," said William Lowry, assistant executive of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation district that includes the project.

On Thursday, travelers were caught in traffic backups as long as 10 miles both to the west and south of Washington.

Among them was state Sen. J. Barry Stout, the ranking Democrat on the state Transportation Committee, who was stuck in traffic for an hour.

Working toward a resolution

Stout set up a meeting Friday including 20 municipal, police and fire officials, along with PennDOT officials, but said the meeting wasn't intended to "beat up" on state transportation officials.

"You are damned if you do and damned if you don't. If the roads aren't fixed in the summer, then they create a problem in the winter," Stout said.

State transportation officials plan to post more signs telling drivers to use both approach lanes to merge and to see if the contractor can speed up the project, Lowry said. State police troopers also plan to step up patrols to keep trucks from lagging.

Stout said he will find extra money in the state budget to pay for more police and he will look for ways to improve traffic flow and expedite construction.

Midafternoon traffic Friday on I-70 created about an hour delay.

"We're about ready to run out of gas, I'm sweating in the back seat and I have to go to the bathroom with nowhere to go," said Thomas Meredith, of Richmond, Ind., who was stuck in traffic with his sister, Tricia, 24.

"We weren't expecting it. It came out of nowhere," he said.




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