POTTSTOWN PA – In the debate over the future of U.S. Route 422, its traffic congestion, and the loss of its surrounding open space, time has become both an enemy and an ally.

A woman reads information presented last week during meetings on the future of U.S. Route 422.

A woman reads information presented last week during meetings on the future of U.S. Route 422.

With each passing week, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), the 25-mile Route 422 Corridor loses more of its rural character. Yet planners believe that, by sparking public discussion now about what might be done to avoid problems down the road – literally and figuratively – there will be enough time to stop or even reverse the trend.

And in just eight days since that discussion was most recently resumed, planners have already received a tentative but crucial editorial endorsement.

The current state of, and the time line for finding solutions to, mounting commuter woes on 422 were subjects of a public meeting last Tuesday (June 23, 2009) at Pottstown Middle School. The DVRPC event, and a similar one held the next day in Royersford, were called to ask for comments on a corridor master plan being created as a guide to the fix.

The tentative target date for its implementation, Montgomery County Assistant Planning Director Leo D. Bagley said, is 2013, four years away.

Bagley, who was among the meeting’s speakers, guessed it will take two years to determine which master plan components seem to be best for unclogging the highway, and win public approval for them. Another two years, he said, will be spent putting them in place.

That time line works in DVRPC’s favor, advocates say. It gives the organization the ability to further develop its primary website, 422Corridor.com, and other outreach efforts to convince voters of the merits of its recommendations.

But there’s a downside too. Until then, the corridor’s growth is anticipated to be “steady and strong” despite the current economy, DVRPC representative Jerry Coyne, another presenter, warned. “There are going to be plenty of needs,” Coyne said, but also, he added, “plenty of opportunities to do something about them.”

Coyne’s message was clear: in the intervening years, the slow-moving parking lot that increasingly characterizes 422 is likely to get even slower.

So far, public sentiment favors improving the highway and its interchanges, and extending commuter train service west from Norristown. Their combined cost: over a billion dollars. Again, Bagley said, time will play a role. It will take years to asemble financing for such projects, primarily in the form of bonds that would be repaid from money collected by turning 422 into a toll road.

The Mercury's offices on North Hanover Street in downtown Pottstown.

The Mercury's offices in downtown Pottstown.

The controversial subject of 422’s tolling received an important boost Monday (June 29, 2009) when The (Pottstown PA) Mercury newspaper gave it a tentative endorsement in an editorial published on its Opinions Page. It said, in part:

“As with so many other quality-of-life issues in our region, the old ways of dealing with them are not working anymore. There are simply more demands on infrastructure — Route 422 being the prime example — than tax dollars can handle. The distaste toward paying for something which was once free is understandable. But the necessity of addressing the issues of 422 remain.

“While the planning continues, the public and those who travel 422 might want to ponder one simple question: What is it worth to me to change Route 422 from a traffic nightmare to smooth travel?

“A toll doesn’t seem so bad after all.”

The opinion attracted a score of derisive online comments, and some support too. But as the newspaper of record for several municipalities lining the corridor, and geographically central to it, some believe The Mercury’s willingness to stick its neck out marks a valuable early victory for DVRPC. Will other publications follow?

Only time will tell.