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6 lanes of I-81? Experts say it's possible, but very expensive

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There’s hope for one of the areas busiest highways.

PennDOT says a recent study found it’s possible to turn much of Interstate 81 to six lanes.

Drive Interstate 81 in Cumberland County towards Carlisle and you’ll notice the highway switches from three lanes to two right around Mechanicsburg.

PennDOT says this is causing congestion.

So they want to continue that third lane down to the Maryland border.

“Generally the volume is going to start to approach 80,000 on kind of an average day. We look at average daily traffic volumes. But we know here’s days out there where it’s much higher,” Mike Keiser, with PennDOT, said.

In fact, PennDOT actually wants to widen the highway into the grassy median for most of the state’s 89 mile strength, from the border to I-78, to three lanes in both directions.

“I would say there’s very few people that would say, ‘hey there three lanes won’t help us’ in the future with the economy. The real question is how do you get there and what are the funding mechanisms needed to achieve that,” Keiser said.

Right now the agency is trying to figure that out.

That’s because the cost is astronomical:

about $2.9 billion dollars.

But the state hopes the federal government will help pay for it as part of the Trump Administration’s plan to fix American infrastructure.

But right now that money isn’t guaranteed.

“The next thing we need to look at is within the existing financial guidance that we have, what makes sense to move forward,” Keiser added.

Many distribution companies set up shop near I-81 in Cumberland County due to its easy access, and location to other trucking routes.

But congestion turns into lost wages.

The longer drivers sit in traffic, the less product companies can move and that ultimately affects the bottom line.

“We’ve had three manufacturing facilities close. And some of the positions, with our lower unemployment rate, a number of those jobs moved to warehouse and distribution facilities to try to offset some of the losses in the local economy. So the necessity of access to 81 for those companies is imperative because they’re moving product,” Michelle Hornickcrowley, Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

Construction is generally a good excuse for drivers to complain about traffic.

But those we spoke to say bring it on: It’s time for something to be done.

“It’ll open everything up. Maybe won’t be so congested. There’s a lot of traffic going on there, so I tend to take a lot of country roads just because I don’t want to deal with all the drivers and the congestion and everything else,” Hery Crespo, of Carlisle, said.

“I think 81’s crazy too many accidents, crazy drivers. Three lanes would be good,” Danielle Gibbons, of Saville Township, said.

If the federal government doesn’t pay for the expansion, PennDOT says they’ll look to see how they can make it work themselves.

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