Sunday, April 14, 2024

Trucks Pound Nerves on Decatur Street

It’s an easy ride for trucks getting off I-80 bound for the truck stop green line). Many drivers, however, don’t see the signs and think they can simply reverse course, but end up stuck in Columbia (red line). The correct way is a convoluted route via Simpson Road and Route 94 (yellow line). Graphic by Joe Phalon.

You can’t get there from here. No, seriously, you can’t.

That’s the message beleaguered residents of the Columbia neighborhood in Knowlton Township have been trying to get across to truckers for decades. And now with mega-warehouses sprouting up faster than nail salons and cannabis dispensaries, the teeth-rattling is reaching new heights on the tolerance Richter scale.  

Confusing signage and convoluted traffic patterns for the exit and entrance ramps of Interstate 80 have resulted in errant 18-wheelers regularly rumbling down Decatur Street and its adjacent streets on a regular basis. Some are headed to Routes 46 and 94 in New Jersey and others to Route 611 on the Pennsylvania side. 

But many are looking to get back onto I-80 east after having visited the truck stops on Simpson Road. Getting there was easy but getting back to the highway is not. And once a trucker has been drawn into the vortex that is Columbia, getting out can be like solving a Rubik’s Cube. The more turns you make, the deeper into the rabbit hole you get. 

Deciphering the issue can be as vexing as trying to explain to a driver how to navigate the labyrinthine interchange that connects one interstate highway with three state routes, several local roads and a big truck stop. 

Columbia is a relatively isolated locality within Knowlton. With a population of 229, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is bordered between the Delaware River to the southwest and the sprawling interchange to the northeast. Like a vacation timeshare, it can be easy to get into but hard to get out, especially if you’re driving a tractor-trailer. 

TravelCenters of America and other truck stops and travel-related businesses on Simpson Road can be found at Exit 4A off eastbound I-80. A simple off ramp, turn left at the end crossing over the highway and you’re there. Easy. Getting back to I-80 east, not so much. 

A driver not familiar with the area might intuitively try to reverse that process. Go back over the highway, turn left and head down the ramp to the interstate, like 1,000 other easy-off, easy-on ramps. 

But turning left, one quickly finds that what logically might have been a ramp back to the highway actually turns into Decatur Street, the main thoroughfare of Columbia. If that driver goes through downtown Columbia, it is possible to get back on I-80 by turning left, but that route is not marked and just looks like any other street.

If the driver passes that point, they are on a one-way, escape-proof trajectory over the Portland-Columbia Toll Bridge, providing the opportunity to then drive around in circles in Pennsylvania’s Slate Belt for a couple hours. 

Once trapped in the vortex, the only realistic alternative is to turn around and head back toward the truck stop area. But all the side streets off Decatur are narrow residential blocks, not particularly conducive to truck traffic. 

As logical as taking the wrong way to I-80 east may seem, the correct routing, conversely, seems totally illogical. Drivers must make a left coming out of the TravelCenter, drive along Simpson Road, past the Knowlton municipal building, then cross Route 94 south, get on 94 north for a tenth of a mile, turn left through the U-turn to 94 south, drive under I-80 and on to the ramp for I-80 east. (If you’ve made it onto Simpson Road and are paying attention to the signs, it’s easier than it sounds.)

The problem is, says Knowlton Mayor Debra Shipps, is that the signage near the truck stop area is totally inadequate, and drivers are already getting drawn into the big rig black hole before they realize it. 

“The signs are ineffective,” Shipps said. “It’s causing mass confusion.”

There are several yellow signs that warn that there is no access to I-80 east adjacent to the off ramp, but they are poorly placed, she said. Over the years, different signs have come and gone but few have really made the point as defined as it should be. 

County Commissioner Lori Ciesla said she is working at the state level to get improvements made to the tangle, but a solution seems elusive. And with more nearby warehouses opening soon and more truck-related businesses opening on Simpson Road, the number of wheels on the road will only increase. 

Knowlton committee member Frank Van Horn has asked officials from the New Jersey Department of Transportation to consider making the bridge over I-80 from Exit 4A one way. A driver could get off at the exit and navigate over the one-way bridge to the truck stop, but would not be able to go back over the bridge, where they would be drawn into the rabbit hole. 

For now, however, improved signage could help, Shipps said. The modest yellow signs there now do indicate that there is no access to I-80 east by going back over the bridge, but what Knowlton officials would like to see are big, in-your-face signs that silently scream “80 EAST? YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE!” 

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.