Infrastructure report more than just roads and bridges | Times Leader

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The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development executive director, Teri Ooms.

WILKES-BARRE — Teri Ooms, executive director at The Institute, said the Indicators 2020 Report on the region’s infrastructure often is defined as roads and bridges.

“But as you can see by the indicators there is so much more to the infrastructure category and the report doesn’t even cover them all,” Ooms said. “It is important to remember that infrastructure is the foundation for jobs, education, business and industry, and quality of life and therefore should be elevated to a priority level as we work to maintain and improve our region.”

According to Megan Stachowiak, research analyst at The Institute, the Infrastructure section of the report contains data that identifies patterns and trends in commuting, transportation infrastructure, motor vehicles, home heating fuels, energy prices, and home internet access.

“Understanding the public’s means of transportation reveals insight into a region’s environmental impact, as well as the impact of its employment dynamics,” Stachowiak said.

Similar to those in the rest of the state, Stachowiak said a significant majority of workers in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties commute to work by driving alone. She said the proportion of commuters using alternative forms of transportation has fluctuated a bit, but does not appear much different in 2018 than it was in 2000, though average commute times have trended slightly higher.

“Despite some slight shifts from year to year, driving alone remains the most common way to commute in both Lackawanna and Luzerne counties,” Stachowiak said. “About four-fifths of the region’s workers do so.”

Stachowiak added that by 2018, the percentages fell in Lackawanna County and rose in Luzerne County, and the percentage is slightly higher in the region than the statewide rate of 75.6 percent. Among alternative modes of transportation, carpooling remains the most frequently utilized. Public transportation usage has generally fluctuated around or just under one percent of workers in the region.

Average travel time

From 2000 to 2018, the report shows that the average travel time to work increased by just over two minutes in Lackawanna County (reaching 21.9 minutes) and by 1.5 minutes in Luzerne County (reaching 22.7 minutes). Both counties reached new highs for commute time in 2018 after recording small declines in 2017. However, the mean travel time to work is lower in both counties than in the Commonwealth as a whole, which grew to 27.2 minutes in 2018 — two minutes longer than in 2000.

Stachowiak said the estimated share of households with no vehicles available has fluctuated in both counties, averaging just over 10 percent throughout the past several years — lower than the statewide rate. In the most recent data, the total number of zero-vehicle households fell in Lackawanna County and grew in Luzerne County. Across the region, nearly 22,000 households have no vehicle available.

Miles of highway

In Lackawanna County, there are 143.2 linear miles of highway that are part of the National Highway System. In Luzerne County, there are 177.8 miles in the National Highway System, which includes interstate highways and certain other critical highways.

Daily Vehicle Miles of Travel (DVMT, the total number of miles driven by all vehicles per day) on the National Highway System in the two counties is over seven million — about 4.6 percent of the statewide DVMT.

The DVMT per mile of highway, a measure of average traffic volume, is lower in Lackawanna County but higher in Luzerne County than the statewide average.

Automatic Traffic Recorders (ATRs) are installed in three locations in the two counties. ATRs count traffic volume and speed data on a continuous basis, 365 days per year.

The local sites include Interstate 81 in Wilkes-Barre Township, Interstate 80 in Foster Township, and State Route 307 in Newton Township. No 2018 data was available for the Foster Township location. Traffic counts are conducted less frequently in other locations within the two counties, so that data is not reported here.

The years from 2014 to 2018 saw significant growth in traffic volume in both I-81 in Wilkes-Barre Township and I-80 in Foster Township (to the extent to which data is available). Average daily traffic on Interstate 81 in Wilkes-Barre Township has risen more than ten percent since 2014, with the largest increase between 2014 and 2015.

“A bridge is considered structurally deficient if it has deteriorated structural elements,” Stachowiak said. “Structurally deficient bridges are characterized by reduced load-carry capacity and require frequent maintenance or rehabilitation. This designation does not imply that the bridge is unsafe, however.”

In 2018, Stachowiak said the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory changed its procedures for bridge evaluation and no longer reports the number of structurally deficient bridges. Instead, bridges are categorized as good, fair, or poor. No new data for 2019 was available in time for inclusion in this year’s report.

“Between Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, 779 bridges were counted in the 2018 National Bridge Inventory — three more than the prior year,” Stachowiak said, “Of those bridges, 18.7 percent and 26.6 percent of bridges were classified as poor. For Lackawanna County, this is a decrease from the prior year, and for Luzerne County, it is a slight increase.”

Statewide, the percentage of bridges classified as poor fell for the second straight year to 16.6 percent — a smaller share of bridges than either Lackawanna or Luzerne counties.

Natural gas

Stachowiak said natural gas has remained the most-used home heating fuel over the past decade. It has also continued to have the lowest cost per million BTU of all energy sources analyzed.

She said the use of fuel oil has declined since 2000, in favor of electricity and natural gas. By 2019, there were slight declines in the cost of natural gas, electricity, and oil heating; while the cost of propane dropped more sharply. The price of natural gas per million BTU fell by less than one percent in 2019, following a larger uptick in the previous year.

Stachowiak said natural gas prices remain lower than in any year analyzed prior to 2016. Prices of other energy sources analyzed — oil, propane, and electricity — also decreased in 2019 after rising in 2018. Oil and electricity also saw price drops of less than one percent from 2018 to 2019, while propane saw a more significant decline of 17 percent (to the lowest price per million BTU of all years analyzed).

“The number of motor vehicle registrations is an indicator of traffic trends,” Stachowiak said. “More vehicles registered typically means more vehicle miles traveled, which can result in traffic congestion.”

Stachowiak said vehicle registrations can also indicate economic activity. Lackawanna County has generally experienced an increase in registered cars compared with 2000. Luzerne County has experienced little sustained growth in passenger car registrations, with a two-percent overall decline from 2000 to 2018.

“Registrations for large trucks, however, have grown significantly in both counties and statewide,” Stachowiak said. “On Interstate 81 in Luzerne County, traffic counts have grown over ten percent in the past five years. Furthermore, daily vehicle miles traveled per linear mile of highway were higher in Luzerne County than statewide.”

Air travel down

In 2019, Stachowiak said the total number of airport passengers and number of departures grew to the highest levels in recent years, while the volume of freight mail fell. More than 590,000 passengers and over 238,000 pounds of freight and mail came through the airport in 2019. As the region’s transportation and warehousing industry grows, the airport will continue to be an important asset for both passenger and freight air traffic.

In 2019, Stachowiak said the total number of passengers traveling through Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport grew to the largest number among all years analyzed, and nearly 40 percent higher than the passenger count recorded in 2013. The number of scheduled departures grew to over 6,000 — seven percent higher than 2013. Freight and mail volume fell in 2019, however.

The percentage of flights arriving on time grew slightly in 2019. The average delay in minutes grew slightly among both arrivals and departures, however, though they remain lower than average delays seen in 2016 and 2017. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport’s on-time performance has generally been on par with or slightly better than larger airports such as Philadelphia, Newark, John F. Kennedy, and Baltimore/Washington. The percentage of flights cancelled remained within its typical range, at two percent.

Technology advances

“Broadband access remained critical to each county’s economic growth, as it is essential for economic development,: Stachowiak said. “Widespread access to the newest and most essential technologies makes any location a more attractive place to locate a business.”

Home internet access is also an important community indicator; it has become a necessity due to its importance in education, employment, healthcare, and social services.

“Increased social distancing during this year’s COVID19 global pandemic further underscores the need for equitable access to the internet,: Stachowiak said. “The two-county region enjoys nearly universal access to wireless technology and other broadband services.”

Household-level internet usage has also increased quickly, reaching 82 and 84 percent of households in Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties respectively in 2019.

“Smartphone adoption is widespread as well, eclipsing three fourths of the region’s households,” Stachowiak said.

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.


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