Underground Vaults Halt Traffic Light Project

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A federally funded project to replace traffic lights in Scranton is on hold.

Engineers are trying to get a better idea of what is going on below the streets in the Electric City before going ahead with the project.

The joint project between PennDOT and the city of Scranton to replace about 50 traffic lights has been in the works for more than 15 years, but it wasn't until they broke ground a few weeks ago that engineers began thinking a series of vaults under city sidewalks may affect the project.

PennDOT officials said a toppled traffic light on Spruce Street Monday is all the evidence they need for a federal project to replace traffic lights in downtown Scranton.

"What happened yesterday was because of the high winds. One of the traffic lights that's going to be replaced actually fell down," said James May of PennDOT.

PennDOT will replace poles and lights in Scranton. Crews started prep work downtown last week. In all, about 50 traffic lights will be replaced.

PennDOT, however, put the project on hold because it ran into some problems, not because of what is going on the street level but because of a piece of Scranton history that is below the sidewalk.

A light pole runs directly into an underground vault. Vaults exist below dozens of old city buildings. They weren't accounted for when engineers from the city first designed the traffic light project 15 years ago. Engineers and PennDOT officials are now taking a survey of the city's vaults. They have never been mapped before and each is a different shape and size.

"This building occupies all the way out to the curb. Some of the vaults only go 10 feet from the building space, but some of the older buildings go all the way out to the curb," explained city engineer John Pocius.

On the surface crews will have to decide if the plans for the traffic light project need to be changed because of the underground vaults. Officials said they were not a part of the plan before because certain federal guidelines for curbs didn't exist then. Now that could be a game changer.

"We've known that the vaults were down here but we didn't know what kind of impact they were going to have on the project until just a few days ago and now were trying to put our arms around that and seeing what impact it's going to have," May added.

PennDOT officials and city engineers said once they finish surveying the vaults, then they will have a better idea of how long the street light replacement project will take and how much more that project may cost.