While Amazon is gearing up to open a fulfillment center off Interstate 78 near Shartlesville, PennDOT is in the middle of a $293 million transportation improvement project on the highway.
When the center opens late this year or early in 2021, traffic congestion will ramp up on exit 23 and the road to the nearby warehouse at 3563 Mountain Road, Upper Bern Township.
Amazon officials said they expect to bring about 1,000 jobs to the area with salaries starting at $15 an hour.
The good news for motorists is that PennDOT plans to keep two lanes open in each direction of Interstate 78 during peak traffic times. During off-peak times, some lanes will be restricted for roadwork.
Ronald J. Young, spokesman for the PennDOT regional office in Allentown, which oversees Berks, said there will be more traffic congestion at the interchange and on Mountain Road.
“Maintaining and expanding Pennsylvania’s transportation system, including I-78, is vital to keeping its businesses connected to the global economy,” Young said.
The highway extends 144 miles through Lebanon, Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties, to New Jersey and New York.
Brian Berger, Upper Bern Township planning commission chairman, said that the infrastructure for the facility was put in place about two years ago.
At the time, Trammell Crow Co., based in West Conshohocken, Montgomery County, built the warehouse, but it did not open.
“There was never a tenant,” he said.
Berger said there are pros and cons with such projects.
“Amazon will bring in jobs, but the traffic will be worse,” he said. “There’s always concern. The truck traffic will be worse.”
Shartlesville-area resident Glenn Shrom said he avoids Interstate 78, driving over Schoolhouse Road to his home in Mountain Springs campground.
Shrom said there is already a lot of traffic at Love’s truck stop off exit 23.
“I can't imagine what it will look like with the warehouse there as well, but it is so bad already that I don't think it will be a big issue for locals,” he said.
Shrom said the locals are more concerned with the potential of other warehouses opening in the area.
There is no direct public transportation to the Amazon warehouse.
David W. Kilmer, executive director of South Central Transit Authority which oversees BARTA, said Amazon asked about the possibility of providing bus service to the center.
However, he said, BARTA is not in a position to provide that service.
Transportation planners, however, believe the benefits of the warehouse will outweigh the negatives.
Alan D. Piper, Berks County transportation planner, said the ease of access and proximity to major population centers have made I-78 a major truck route, as well as an ideal site for warehousing and distribution facilities vital in today’s economy.
“I-78 most definitely influences economic development in northern Berks,” Piper said. “As a vital link in the Interstate highway system, I-78 provides access to the New York metropolitan area and New England.”
John P. Weidenhammer, chairman of Berks Alliance, a group of community leaders committed to revitalization and economic development, said the I-78 project is as much about transportation as it is about economic development.
“Projects like the Amazon warehouse create jobs both directly and indirectly,” Weidenhammer said.
Weidenhammer said the project will increase the tax base and real estate tax income for the municipalities and the county and spur other development around the intersection.
“The best example of how one project can lead to others is at the intersection of I-78 and Route 61,” he said. “When Cabela’s opened at that intersection, it was pretty much the only building. Now, if you look at the surrounding area, there is significant development, including just to the south in Hamburg a few miles away.”
Weidenhammer said that Amazon is working to set up distribution centers in closed shopping mall stores.
“This type of adaptive use of now-obsolete retail real estate properties presents an economic development initiative as well,” he said. “We will see more of this. This is all very positive.”
Amazon has also leased a 609,000-square foot warehouse at 1002 Patriot Parkway, Muhlenberg Township. Muhlenberg officials said they don’t anticipate traffic issues because the area is away from residential neighborhoods.
The Muhlenberg Amazon warehouse is expected to open by mid-September.