After 20 years and $90 million, Montgomery County has completed a highway extension project officials hope will bring new economic opportunities to Norristown.
The long-awaited Lafayette Street Extension project aims to increase access to downtown Norristown and ease commutes, correcting a gap in the region’s transportation network that local officials say has isolated the working-class county seat from the development that has made Montgomery County one of the wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania.
Norristown’s poverty rate is more than four times higher than the poverty rate in Montgomery County as a whole; for-rent signs line downtown streets.
“Norristown is excited. We have one goal. That’s to move Norristown forward. We appreciate the county’s efforts along ours to these kinds of collaborations,” Norristown Council President Derrick Perry said.
Norristown’s historic downtown isn’t easy to find from the highways that connect the county’s communities. Current exit signs on the PA Turnpike and Route 476 take you to the eastern edge of the city, away from the business district. An additional 15 minutes or more is needed to reach the downtown area by car.
“As suburbia grew up all around it over the last 50 years with new highways and new roads that took them elsewhere like King of Prussia and Conshohocken, Norristown didn’t have that and they lost their access,” said Scott France, executive director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission. “That’s part of the story behind what’s happened there.”
He attributes Norristown’s predicament to the broader trend of deindustrialization and past sprawling suburban development patterns.
The extension and a pending interchange are supposed to fix that. Other elements of the plan aim to reduce traffic congestion and increase access for pedestrians and cyclists.
“With this road access, there are plenty of other opportunities for redevelopment and investment in Norristown and we think that its time is coming,” France said.
With the next step of the project, the construction of the Lafayette Street interchange is in the hands of the PA Turnpike. The $66 million effort is already in its engineering phase.
Construction is expected to be complete by 2025.
PennDOT also has plans for a half interchange with the US 202 Dannehower Bridge.
Toward an ‘urban boulevard’
While the project is two decades old, construction of the first phase did not begin until 2013. It starts a mile outside of Norristown in Plymouth Township and continues through downtown Norristown. It runs parallel to Main Street.
The first phase involves the extension of Lafayette Street to Conshohocken Road and Diamond Avenue. The second phase of the initiative widened and realigned several streets near the projected interchange including Conshohocken Road, Fairfield Road, Lucetta Street, Ridge Pike, and Diamond Avenue.
The final phase saw the county widen and reconstruct Lafayette Street in order to transform the area into an “urban boulevard” with bidirectional traffic and four new lanes.
“Phase three basically finished off the county-administered portion of it,” France said.
The county also chose to relocate the Schuylkill River Trail. There are now wider sidewalks, public open space, including a renovated Strawberry Alley, and mid-block crossing toward the SEPTA Norristown Transportation Center. The theme tying together the project is access, France said.
“We address all phases of transportation. In fact, one of our policies is a complete street policy and that’s where we’re trying to emphasize not only the vehicles and cars, but for bicycles and pedestrians and enabling transit as well,” France said.
The Lafayette Street Extension Project is just the latest in a recent flurry of development moves in Norristown with the goal of revitalizing the area.
“There’s always work that needs to be done in Norristown,” Perry said.
From a $400 million dollar redevelopment of its justice center campus to an RFP for a mixed-use project in the downtown area, the town of 35,000 people is trying to change its course.
“We’re going to keep pushing the envelope for better for Norristown and get everybody excited for something that they probably wanted to see for a very, very long time,” Perry said.
The Lafayette Extension is the largest of its kind in the state led by a county. About 20% of the project’s bill was funded by the county. Federal highway dollars picked up the rest of the bill, France said.
“No other county has led a transportation infrastructure project of this magnitude in the Commonwealth which is a testament to all of our regional partners throughout the years,” said Ken Lawrence, vice chair of Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, in a statement.
The Montgomery County Planning Commission managed the project with the help of the PA Turnpike Commission, PennDOT and the Federal Highway Commission.