Columbia bridge

Traffic flows across the Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River in Columbia Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Bicyclists in the foreground ride along Front Street in Columbia at the beginning of the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail.

Don and Becky Murphy have long been believers in Columbia, amassing a portfolio of properties in town with Don telling LNP | LancasterOnline as far back as 2018 that “we see the town definitely on the rise and we hope we’re a big part of that.”

Their vision for Columbia’s renaissance could get a boost thanks to action in Washington, D.C.

Money in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that has been sent to President Joe Biden for his signature could help fund already-vetted projects in Lancaster County. One of the projects involves $5 million worth of improvements to the Veterans Memorial Bridge, where a new bike lane and road markings could funnel more walkers, bicyclists and hikers into Columbia. The borough, with a population of 10,207, opened its renovated historic downtown market in May.

Don Murphy said the bridge improvements could coax more tourists into town and Adriana Atencio, co-executive director at the Lancaster-based pro-bike nonprofit Common Wheel, said even unprotected bike lanes can help slow traffic and make hesitant cyclists feel safer.

Return on investment

The project on the bridge over the Susquehanna River is one of six Lancaster County plans flagged for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. In August, state officials requested a list of high-priority projects from planners across the state in case a new pot of federal infrastructure money arrived.

But it is very early.

The lists from each region are preliminary and not necessarily projects that will be addressed with federal funds from the infrastructure bill, according to PennDOT.

Republican county Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said it’s impossible to say at this point how the infrastructure bill will affect projects locally without knowing specifics about how funding will flow to state and local governments.

D’Agostino also chairs the Lancaster County Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group designed to collect and represent local input for transportation projects funded largely through federal and state dollars.

All but one of the six projects flagged for PennDOT are already in the MPO’s four-year plan. A bridge replacement in Ephrata Township is in its longer-term plans. But D’Agostino said he would like to see an open process with considerations for other projects as well.

“I’d like to see, quite frankly, us be able to do some things that are real value-adds, that can have a great return on the investment, but the investment doesn’t really take as much as some of these large projects,” D’Agostino said.

One example is new traffic signaling for congested roadways, he said.

Democratic county Commissioner Craig Lehman and Republican Commissioner Josh Parsons did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker also did not respond to a request for comment. Smucker voted against the infrastructure bill Friday. In a tweet the same day, he called it a “massive trillion-dollar tax and spend bill.”

‘It might move the needle’

PennDOT officials have not yet followed up with the Lancaster County Planning Department on next steps for greenlighting projects through the infrastructure bill, said Scott Standish, the department’s executive director. Biden has yet to sign the bill, but he said over the weekend he will sign it “soon.”

The $1 trillion figure is a massive investment when compared to recent history. The $787 billion 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that passed during the height of the Great Recession earmarked $48 billion for transportation projects. That’s less than the $66 billion the new infrastructure bill has allocated just for Amtrak.

The bill reserves $110 billion for highways and bridges alone.

But when spread around the whole country, it may not go as far as one might think, said Standish.

“It might move the needle on a couple of really important projects, but I’m not sure it’s really going to change things up incredibly,” Standish said. “But from what I remember when looking at it, the package has a number of positive things in terms of transit, rail, resources for other transportation, so I think that’s all positive.”

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