By Jennifer Learn-Andes, The Times Leader
After years on the drawing board, construction has begun on the River Street Corridor Improvement project in Wilkes-Barre, with an expected October completion.
The $1.87 million “calming” project is intended to help pedestrians while keeping traffic moving on the busy stretch between the Luzerne County Courthouse and Wilkes University’s Dorothy Dickson Darte Center, the state transportation department says.
Some project highlights, according to project developers:
• Pedestrian crossings: Eleven new pedestrian crossings will cut across River Street.
These 10-foot-wide paths will be made of pavement stamped and colored to resemble traditional brick at the following intersections: South, Northampton, Market, Union and North streets and in front of the Millennium Circle Portal and the south entrance to the Luzerne County Courthouse.
Each crossing will be equipped with push-buttons for pedestrians who want to cross.
The Millennium Circle and courthouse crossings, which don’t coincide with traffic lights, will have beacons that rapidly flash when pedestrians press the buttons.
Several stamped pavement crossings parallel to River Street also will be added at roadway intersections.
• Southbound lanes: The side of River Street closest to the Susquehanna River generally will remain the same with two lanes.
A raised stamped pavement median is added in the left lane immediately after the Northampton Street intersection to reinforce that the left lane approaching the median is only for turns onto Northampton — not for motorists who want to keep going straight.
• Northbound lanes: Except for turning lanes, this stretch will be reduced from two lanes to one from South Street to the Millennium Circle Portal, where it then resumes the two-lane pattern.
A combination of medians and textured curbing the same color as the median will fill up the space in sections to contain motorists to a single lane. The curbing will be level with the road and can be used as a pull-off in emergencies.
• Other enhancements: The project also includes paving and new drainage, traffic signals, curb improvements and traffic signal timing modifications.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Taluto said Monday contractors from Kriger Construction, Dickson City, have started initial work on ramps and will complete the project in sections, mostly on nights and weekends, to limit disruption.
County Flood Protection Authority Executive Director Christopher Belleman, who oversees the Wyoming Valley Levee flood control system that runs along River Street, said he recently stopped work on one of the pedestrian areas at Market Street because it was in the path of the foundation that supports the Market Street Bridge flood gates.
The contractor agreed to relocate the crossing nearby, project developers said.
Belleman said he supports the River Street project because it will benefit pedestrians accessing the courthouse and the $30 million Susquehanna River recreational area that includes an amphitheater and fishing pier. Budgetary concerns prompted county officials years ago to eliminate crossing guards who escorted courthouse visitors across River Street.
“I think anything that helps pedestrians crossing River Street is a good thing. It’s a dangerous street,” Belleman said.
Plans for the project changed over the years, with some citizens and officials calling for granite medians or green islands between lanes and no more than one lane in each direction except for turning lanes. Critics expressed concerns those alterations would slow traffic and provide a false sense of safety for pedestrians.
Project designers Stephen Sartori and Stephen Valenti, of Pennoni Associates, said Monday the raised medians were selected because they are less costly to maintain and are “mountable curbs” that can be accessed by emergency vehicles.
They believe the final plan is the best compromise for all River Street users.
“I think it turned out to be a good end result for pedestrians to get into the park and to maintain as much of the traffic flow for existing commuters as possible,” Sartori said.