PennDOT, Cumberland Co. officials hope to make I-81 safer

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CARLISLE, Pa. -- A coalition of emergency workers, borough and county officials, and a state lawmaker are working together to try and make a dangerous stretch of highway in Cumberland County safer.

Interstate 81 in Carlisle, between the Allen Road exit at mile marker 44 and Middlesex/New Kingstown exit at mile 52 has become known for its frightening, sometimes deadly crossover crashes. The 8-mile stretch features a narrow, 50-foot, grassy median, often times with no barriers. Due to the sheer volume of vehicles, says local first-responder Nathan Harig, tractor trailers will lose control and drive across to the opposite lane, hitting oncoming traffic head-on.

"We tend to see them every one to one and a half months," says Harig, who is the assistant chief at Cumberland Goodwill EMS.

Harig has advocated for change to the section of Interstate 81 in Carlisle for the last three years. When the highway was built, he says, it was mostly residential traffic. Yet in the last couple decades, Carlisle, with its multiple highway arteries, has become a hub for tractor trailers.

"The dynamics of this area have changed, and I'm unaware of the last time we looked at this for a modification for volume," Harig said.

Recently, State Representative Stephen Bloom became involved.

Bloom represents Carlisle and admits the stretch of I-81 in question is outdated. Ideally, he says, the interstate needs a full makeover into a three-lane road to properly handle the amount of traffic. However, he realizes there isn't enough money available in state or federal funds to handle that type of project.

"What are some common sense, reasonable ways, that we can reduce these potentially deadly crossover incidents?" Bloom asks.

It's a question best suited for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. About a month ago, Bloom began conversations with PennDOT's legislative representatives to discuss doing a traffic study on ways to improve safety on Interstate 81 around Carlisle.

In discussions, they realized the most cost-efficient alternative is installing cable median barriers along the sides of the highway. In a best case scenario, the method has been shown to bounce vehicles back into forward-moving traffic, preventing crossover crashes.

"You may end up with a fender bender. Possibly a serious fender bender. But you won't see the carnage you see when a vehicle goes over that median," Bloom said. "We're hoping this will focus PennDOT in realizing this corridor needs attention."

Bloom adds he, along with Carlisle-area emergency workers and borough officials, hope to meet with PennDOT officials within the next month to discuss next steps. If all goes to plan, Bloom would like to see medians in place within the next few months.