78th Division Highway
With its start from the Department of Highways as an upgraded US 22, Interstate 78 became one of the first Interstates in Pennsylvania to get the familiar red, white, and blue shields. In 1950, the section from the Lebanon County line to Exit 13 was upgraded, while construction began on the section from Exit 13 to Exit 17. That section was completed in 1951. In 1952, construction began on the Lehigh Valley Thruway from the current interchange with US 22 to New Jersey. In 1954, the highway was under construction from Exit 17 to Exit 19. That same year, the first section of the Lehigh Valley Thruway opened to traffic from west of PA 100 to the PA 987 interchange. The remainder of the expressway from PA 987 to New Jersey opened in 1955. Also that year, the section from Exit 17 to Exit 19 opened to traffic.
Construction began in 1956 on the section from Exit 23 to Exit 30, and in 1957 from Exit 30 to the Lehigh County line. Those two sections opened in 1958 and the following year, the section from the Berks County line to west of PA 100 opened.
In 1964, several sections were on the drawing board. The first section was from Interstate 81 to Fredericksburg, and the other was from the current PA 248 interchange south and east around Easton and into Phillipsburg, New Jersey. In 1965, the proposed new alignment was extended from Fredericksburg to the Berks County line. At that time, Interstate 78 would have gone south of the borough closer to the US 22 alignment. In 1968, construction began from Interstate 81, which was itself under construction, to the Berks County line.
In 1968, the NIMBYers in Phillipsburg, New Jersey successfully fought I-78 coming through their town. This was for the best since there are several dangerous curves on the Lehigh Valley Thruway near Easton. In 1969, the Department of Highways proposed a new Interstate 78 alignment to leave between Exit 45 and Exit 49, travel south and turn east near Emmaus and continue south of Allentown and Bethlehem. It would cross the Delaware River north of Raubsville, Pennsylvania.
The section from Interstate 81 to the Berks County line opened to traffic in 1970, and it would be the last new section of Interstate 78 to open for 19 years.
The first exit numbers to appear on the 1975 PennDOT map showed Interstate 78 with mileage based exit numbers, which reappeared in 2001. The last time mileage-based exit numbers were shown on Interstate 78 was on the 1978 map.
Construction finally began in 1984 on the long-awaited southern bypass of the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area, from PA 309 east to New Jersey. New Jersey DOT took over construction of their missing link from the toll bridge to US 22 east of Phillipsburg. In 1986, the connection from the US 22 interchange to PA 309 was still proposed, with construction beginning on it in 1987. The project was not without tragedy as during the five years of construction, four workers lost their lives.
With the opening just around the corner, PennDOT officials became worried in September 1989 when the New Jersey Department of Transportation reported a sinkhole opened up underneath their new section just east of the Delaware River bridge. The sinkhole, which was actually two cave-ins, swallowed up one and a half westbound lanes. Fortunately, it was repaired in time.
Finally, after years of being stalled due to politics and legal actions, the new 32-mile-long, $402 million section of Interstate 78 along with the 1,222-foot-long Interstate 78 Toll Bridge opened to traffic on November 21, 1989, thus completing Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Governor Robert P. Casey said, "Completion of I-78 represents a major achievement for Pennsylvania, for our neighbors in New Jersey and for the nation. It represents a new road to opportunity for Lehigh Valley companies to grow and prosper. We open new arteries for safer, better access for the thousands of commuters who travel to work each day in a resurgent Lehigh Valley economy." This was just one of many expressways in Pennsylvania that sat on the "drawing boards" for 30 years but not started until the 1980s.
Several environmental activists filed a major lawsuit testing a then new federal law protecting parklands had delayed construction. Costly and lengthy environmental impact studies had to be conducted on the proposed route and utilization of the PA 309 corridor before the federal court gave PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration the "green light" to proceed but with restrictions. For example, most of the Lehigh County portion is six lanes, but the Northampton County section is only four lanes.
In May 1990, Federal Highway Administrator Thomas D. Larson, a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation, had his first opportunity to drive on the new Interstate. Recalling the "decades of acrimonious debate and delay," he said that building the missing link "involved major compromises, attention to environmental concerns, and careful consensus building." He added, "It is really amazing just how superior this road is to older Interstates." The benefits of the new alignment were noticed right away, when as much as 20% of traffic that had used congested, old US 22 moved to the new Interstate. By opening the new alignment, it had become the "express" route and US 22 reverted to being a "local" route.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007 will be remembered more for the snow and ice storm than romantic evenings for most of eastern Pennsylvania. Even those just passing through, or attempting to, on the Interstate won't soon forget Valentine's Day 2007. As conditions began to deteriorate with seven inches of snow followed by three inches of ice, several tractor-trailers began to jack-knife and smaller accidents occur which blocked the westbound lanes near Hamburg. PennDOT estimated at one point that hundreds of tractor-trailers were stuck due to conditions, running out of fuel, or fuel freezing. More than 130 National Guardsmen began using Humvees and other vehicles around 9 PM to help control traffic, pass out food, blankets, and baby supplies. Police took fuel and food to some motorists.
Aerial view of the back-up near PA 100. (KYW-TV)
National Guardsmen delivering supplies. (KYW-TV)
Department of Transportation crews began to block off parts of I-78 around 8 AM on Thursday but more traffic continued to get into the gridlock because other entrances were still open. State Police did not close all of the ramps from Exit 19 to Exit 49 until around 5 PM, more than 24 hours after the initial vehicles began to get stuck. By 9 PM, PennDOT said all motorists had been cleared off I-78, but there were still vehicles being towed off the Interstate. The storm and the problems it caused forced Governor Ed Rendell to declare a statewide disaster emergency which authorized state agencies to use all available resources and personnel to assist in relief. It took 150 employees with 141 pieces of equipment to clear the ice and snow off I-78, I-80, and I-81. Another stipulation of the emergency declaration was halting toll collection on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to help in cross-state travel from February 15 to February 17. At 4 PM that day, Interstate 78 reopened to traffic.
In the wake of the mishandling of the storm, a bipartisan House committee was formed and a state-ordered investigation begun. Two hearings would take place between February 22 and 23, but several high-ranking state officials including Secretary of Transportation Allen Biehler and State Police Commissioner Colonel Jeffrey Miller stepped forward on February 21 to accept responsibility. Gregory C. Fajt, a senior adviser to Governor Rendell who helped begin a preliminary investigation, said, "We didn't execute well in the storm's early states, and didn't escalate our response when we fell behind in some key areas." James Lee Witt Associates, a firm headed by the former FEMA director, was hired to conduct a separate review of the response.
After the February 2007 storm and aftermath, it was determined that something would have to be done to prevent travelers from being stranded on the Interstate. What you might notice in the above pictures, one side of I-78 is clogged with traffic but the other is clear with the only problem being the Jersey barrier. Work to rectify that problem started on September 8, 2009, by installing movable median barrier gates at five points in Berks County between Exit 19 and the Lehigh County line. The gates allow emergency personnel to open the median so the Pennsylvania State Police can divert traffic from one side of the Interstate to the other side in the event of an emergency closure. The project cost $1,027,000 million and finished in December. Fortunately the movable barrier wasn't needed when the next big storm hit on February 9, 2010, as Governor Rendell took proactive measures and closed I-78 at 12:30 PM the following day. In a press release he stated, "For your safety, do not drive. You will risk your life and, potentially, the lives of others if you get stuck on highways or any road. The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for several counties in Pennsylvania and visibility is at or near zero. Motorists must stay off Interstates 81, 83, and 78 until my administration lifts the restriction," which happened on February 11.
Another project to help traffic flow was getting off the drawing boards as well around the same time as that one. The I-78 Open Road Tolling (ORT) Project at the Interstate 78 Toll Bridge in Easton began with a $4,786,000 design-build contract being awarded to A.P. Construction of Philadelphia on September 29, 2009 for partial demolition and removal of a section the canopy of the existing toll plaza; new overhead sign gantries; design fabrication, and construction of a canopy over the new ORT lanes; design and construction of a concrete barrier to separate the ORT lanes from the regular toll lanes; lane restriping of the Interstate; and design and construction of electrical systems at the toll plaza for the ORT equipment. Then on November 23, 2009, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission awarded a contract in the amount of $764,945.62 to Hill International, Inc. of Marlton, New Jersey for construction and inspection services for the project. Construction began January 8, 2010 and required removal of three toll collection lanes on the left side of the existing plaza which originally consisted of seven lanes which caused congestion during weekday evening rush hours. Relief for westbound travelers came on May 13, 2010 when the two Open Road Tolling, or sometimes referred to as Express E-ZPass, lanes opened to traffic allowing it to continue through the plaza at highway speeds while still paying the toll. They opened 13 days sooner than expected, but the entire project didn't finish until June 30. The ORT lanes won a 2011 Diamond Award Certificate for Design Build Services from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania.
After the snowstorm in February 2007, and the changes that took place in the wake, it seemed weather would no longer pose a problem for drivers on Interstate 78. However, drivers would again become stranded on the Interstate when another winter storm hit in January 2011. Late in the evening on January 26, several tractor-trailers became disabled in the westbound lanes south of Allentown. Interstate 78 was closed into the early hours of January 27 with westbound traffic detoured north on PA 33 and west over US 22. "Most of the motorists who were stuck in the back-up are getting moved out. We have plow vehicles there treating the roads. Where the closure was, the commercial vehicles, most of the vehicles, have been moved out and we're getting the road in shape for travel as we speak," said PennDOT spokesman Ron Young around 12:45 AM Thursday morning.
A new safety feature began to be installed along the Interstate in 2009. Cable guard rail, a modern version of the old wire guard rail, was being installed in the grassy medians of Interstates statewide, and Interstate 78 was no different. "It will catch the vehicle and slow the vehicle down and actually absorb some of the energy from the force of the vehicle," said PennDOT spokesman Ron Young. The section from Exit 60 to the New Jersey state line saw the new barriers being installed and not a moment too soon. In September 2010, two tractor trailers and a car collided near Hellertown, resulting in three injured and one killed, and in January 2011, a life was taken when a vehicle crossed the median into traffic in the opposing direction.
Safety has always been an issue on the outdated section that comprises the multiplex with US 22. It was not questioned as much as on May 12, 2014 when a fiery chain-reaction crash involving seven vehicles in the eastbound lanes at mile marker 41.4 near the Berks/Lehigh County border killed three people. Around 1:15 PM, a tractor-trailer rear-ended a car as it attempted to pass a box truck, which initiated the accident which caused three of the vehicles to burst into flame. The westbound lanes were closed until 5:30 PM, while the eastbound lanes did not reopen until 10:30 PM. The tractor-trailer driver, who received a summary offense, and 11 others were taken to local hospital for treatment. The accident was not a surprise according to PennDOT, who commented that the section is notorious for aggressive driving. "The fatality rate is 41% above the state average and the overall crash rate is 71% above the state average," said Ron Young, spokesman.
Snow squalls have been a problem on I-78 when they hit the eastern part of the state on the morning of February 13, 2016 and the afternoon of January 30, 2019. The former caused a 64 vehicle pile-up, including 12 tractor-trailers, and resulted in the death of three and 73 injured at mile marker 7.5 in Lebanon County. First responders battled subzero wind chills and wind gusts up to 40 MPH. Buses were brought in to transport the uninjured to the Jonestown Perseverance Fire Company, while the injured were sent to 11 different hospitals. Around 21 fire and EMS companies, in addition to four helicopters, from Lebanon and surrounding counties responded. The Interstate was reopened around 24 hours later on February 14. The latter white out resulted in a 14 vehicle pile-up, eight of which were tractor-trailers, around 2:45 PM at mile marker 32.4 westbound in Berks County. Unlike the earlier pile-up in 2016, there were no fatalities and only three were injured. The westbound lanes reopened around 7:30 PM that night.
Even before then, an early season snow storm crippled travel throughout the Lehigh Valley on November 15, 2018. The storm dropped 7.4 inches of snow at Lehigh Valley International Airport and caused travel headaches on Interstate 78, causing motorists to be stuck for 12 hours. Disabled vehicles including tractor-trailers were blocking the highway from the New Jersey state line to PA 100. Not all were due to accidents, but ones running out of fuel, dead batteries, and even sleeping motorists. The latter of which required police driving in the eastbound lanes, honking their horns trying to wake them up.
When the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic swept into the country in March 2020, PennDOT took measures to stem the spread to their employees and staff. At 12:01 AM on March 17, all rest areas and welcome centers across the state, including the one in Northampton County, were closed to the traveling public. Also all Driver License and Photo License centers were closed for two weeks and construction projects on roads under the Department of Transportation's jurisdiction were stopped. Hearing that construction work was halted could come as welcome news, the idea of closing down the rest areas did not sit well with truckers, trucking firms, nor some elected officials. It was then announced that on Thursday, March 19, barricades would come down at 13 rest areas across the state and they would be reopened with portable restroom facilities while the permanent facilities would remain closed. "Every decision made has been in the interest of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and we are constantly reevaluating our response," said PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell. "That said, we also recognize that drivers need and deserve access to rest areas." PennDOT announced on March 24 that an additional 10 would reopen, and including the original 13, all would provide normal service with additional cleaning and maintenance. The welcome center/rest area at the I-78 Toll Bridge toll plaza in Northampton County reopened on June 6.
The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission also took measures to stem the spread to their employees and staff. At 10:00 PM on March 24, all tolled bridges, including the Interstate 78 Toll Bridge, went to a cashless toll collection system. E-ZPass users would pass through the plazas as normal, and drivers who normally paid by cash were directed to the far right lane of the toll plazas and to have their license plate captured. A bill for the toll only, without additional administrative or violation fees, would then be sent to their address which would then have to be paid within 30 days or else each unpaid transaction would face a $30 violation fee. At 11 PM on May 13, the DRJTBC began accepting cash payments again. Additional safety measures were put in place, such as toll collection staff being given plastic face shields, masks, and nitrile gloves. They also encouraged drivers paying by cash to wear a face covering when using a cash lane.
Tropical Storm Isaias slammed into the Commonwealth on August 4, it brought a deluge of rain to the state. Hardest hit was the eastern half where major flooding was reported. It rained so heavily, that the Interstate just west of the Cedar Crest Boulevard interchange in Allentown flooded. One commuter recorded his trip eastbound past the Lehigh Valley Hospital complex.
With the amount of revenue from the gasoline tax falling due to more fuel-efficient vehicles as well as a drop in driving due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Transportation's budget has been taking a hit. Nine bridges across the state are targeted to be a part of the PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership (P3) Initiative, and were selected from various regions so as to not impact one part of the state more severely than another. Toll gantries would be installed at the crossings and, because PennDOT is forbidden from collecting tolls, would be operated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission with E-ZPass and PA Turnpike TOLL BY PLATE equipment to read tags or captures license plates with tolls ranging from $1 to $2 for cars. The cost for trucks has yet to be determined but would be based on a combination of height and number of axles. The PTC would then forward the money to the Department of Transportation for replacement or rehabilitation and continued maintenance of the bridges. One that is being looked at is the Lenhartsville Bridge Replacement Project in Berks County. Needless to say, the public, legislators, and trucking companies were not pleased to hear this news. During an Appropriations Committee hearing on February 23, 2021, where more than a half dozen committee members questioned Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian about the potential tolls, state Representative Mike Carroll of Luzerne County reminded his colleagues they had no one to blame but themselves. He mentioned that the Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board was created by a 2012 law passed that delegated approval for just this situation to appointees of the governor and top lawmakers. While Representative Carroll did not vote for the bill, others who are now criticizing the prospect of bridge tolls did.
Brandon Moree, director of members communications for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, which represents about 1,400 trucking firms, has been encouraging members to contact legislators and fill out online surveys by PennDOT about the proposal. The group supported the Act 89 legislation passed in 2013 that increased funding through a rise in the fuel tax. "Here we are seven years later and we’re being asked to pay the bill again," Moree said. "We feel we already pay our fair share. We feel like where fuel taxes already are, we pay enough." Rick Daley, president of PMTA’s Western Pennsylvania district and a vice president at Tri-State Trailer Sales Inc. on Neville Island in Allegheny County, suggested an alternative would be for the state to help train more truck drivers, because he’s aware of many companies that could ship more loads if they had more drivers, and therefore would pay more taxes and fees. Others are also questioning whether the cost of installing the tolling gantries and associated equipment outweighs the benefit from the small tolls proposed for cars. The Federal Highway Administration still has to review the plan and decide if tolls are allowed to be charged. The Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, a prominent highway construction trade association in the state, came out on March 24, 2021 to oppose the idea. While the group generally supports tolling to fund projects, Executive Vice President Robert Latham explained to the House Transportation Committee that the cost of private financing would drive up project costs and relying on tolling to cover construction costs is risky.
The State Senate passed a bill on April 28, 2021 to force PennDOT to start the planning process over by providing more transparency about its proposals, publicly advertising them, opening the plan up to public comments, and seeking approval from both the governor and the Legislature. The bill passed 28-19 with support from all of the Republican senators and one Democrat senator. During the floor debate, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, citing successful transportation funding efforts have usually required cooperation between lawmakers, said "This initiative and the way it is being advanced is totally counter to that legacy." Senator John Sabatina from Philadelphia said, "As much as I loathe to tax my constituents to fix a bridge, I'd rather tax them than have them suffer through a catastrophe when the Girard Point Bridge falls down." He added, sooner or later "a bridge is going to collapse and we're all going to look at each other and say, 'how did that happen? How could we have prevented that?'" The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, but it will probably not go further as Governor Wolf opposes it and the Senate lacks a veto-proof majority.
Interstate 78 Ends
Interstate 78 Pictures
E-ZPass - Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission
Interstate 78 Toll Bridge - Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission
Open Road Tolling - Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission
I-78 Interchange Browser - Tim Reichard
Interstate 78 - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Interstate 78 - David Steinberg
Interstate 78 Pictures - Steve Alpert
Interstate 78 Pictures (Eastbound) - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Interstate 78 Pictures (Westbound) - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
I-81 at Exit 1 five miles west of
New Jersey state line at the
Interstate 78 Toll Bridge in Easton
78th Division Highway
William Penn Highway: Exit 8 to Exit 51
Walter J. Dealtrey Memorial Highway: Lehigh County line to New Jersey
Lebanon, Berks, Lehigh, and Northampton
US 22: Exit 8 to Exit 51
PA 309: Exit 53 to Exit 60
I-80N (1957 - 1958)
US 309 (1959 - 1968): Exit 53 to Exit 60
Former LR Designations:
1045: I-81 to 0.2 mile east of the Lebanon County line
141: 0.2 mile east of the Lebanon County line to Exit 29
285: Exit 29 to Exit 35
285 Spur: Exit 35 to Exit 45
443: Exit 45 to Exit 51
1045: Exit 51 to the New Jersey state line
Cedar Crest Boulevard
Morgan Hill Road
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Page updated April 28, 2021.
Content and graphics, unless otherwise noted, copyright © Jeffrey J. Kitsko. All rights reserved.
Information sign courtesy of Richard C. Moeur.
Information courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, KYW-TV Philadelphia, WPVI-TV Philadelphia, Reading Eagle, WFMZ-TV Allentown, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the Allentown Morning Call, the Easton Express-Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, KDKA-TV Pittsburgh, Rand McNally, and David Greenberger.