— Road Warrior, The Morning Call
This situation baffled me, mostly because, given the location of this wildly popular new burger joint — er, fast-food restaurant — immediately adjacent to a busy intersection on one of the most heavily traveled roads in the region, during the peak-traffic holiday shopping season fed by the shopping malls to the north, I would have thought that having all the access lanes to the business open and freely flowing would be of the utmost priority.
So why would PennDOT or Whitehall Township or White Castle management close, or allow to be closed, one of only two entrance lanes to the business, and the only one from MacArthur, for more than a month, when at times the line of cars waiting for the drive-up window spilled onto the access road to the adjacent Home Depot store?
The answer is that, though the traffic-engineering design at White Castle is expected to work quite well under "normal" traffic conditions, nothing even approaching normalcy greeted the restaurant's Nov. 13 opening.
The mad crush of business generated by the debut of the region's first White Castle simply overwhelmed the design, and it happened very quickly, said township Mayor Ed Hozza Jr.
Officials expected the place would be popular at first, "but no one expected it to be doing the volume it is," Hozza said. Within minutes of the opening, the takeout-window queue had wound around the building, and motorists entering the property from MacArthur, intending to use the window, had nowhere to go.
It's hard to envision without being able to see the entire site from an aerial view, but if the line for the window grows too long, it winds past the MacArthur entranceway. Takeout-window customers entering from there don't realize that to get to the end of the line, they need to encircle the restaurant completely to find it. So they try to butt their way into line, or hope (mostly unsuccessfully) that someone (already frustrated by the wait) will let them in. Very quickly, a line of cars waiting to get into the existing line of cars is created, and the new line extends onto the southbound travel lane of MacArthur Road. The latter condition simply is unacceptable, Hozza said.
In the commotion on opening day, even police officers directing traffic (the cost of which was covered by the restaurant, not township taxpayers, Hozza hastened to point out) couldn't prevent the backups onto MacArthur, and within hours the MacArthur entrance had to be closed, Hozza said. Backups onto the Home Depot access road are bad enough, but not as detrimental as those onto MacArthur itself, particularly since the Fairmont Avenue intersection is only about 150 feet to the north of the restaurant entrance.
The long window queues also make it challenging for people to back out of parking spaces on the lot, because the line of cars tends to hug the back ends of the parking spaces. Motorists in parked cars often have to wait for people to let them out. A scant 21 spaces are available, by the way, and two of those are reserved for handicapped motorists.
Township Traffic Engineer Frank Clark of Keystone Consulting Engineers said there's nothing wrong with the restaurant's traffic plan, which was approved by the township Planning Commission (and which was not designed by his firm, incidentally).
MacArthur Road already is overburdened, obviously, particularly at this time of year, and any added development, particularly so close to the Route 22 interchange, could only add to the traffic woes. Apart from that, though, Clark believes the White Castle traffic plan "can work under normal circumstances," he said, meaning after the initial buzz over the restaurant, and the resulting crush of traffic, loses speed.
"I think it's starting to ease off a little now," he added, though when I visited Tuesday, the takeout line extended well past the point where the MacArthur entrance way would be. Admittedly, this was just before noon, and the lunch rush was on.
White Castle spokesman Jamie Richardson said the Whitehall restaurant set a corporate record for opening-week sales, beating the previous revenue total by 8.3 percent (he would not divulge actual dollar values). Officials at the privately held company are extremely happy with the results — the response has been "beyond our wildest dreams," Richardson said — but the frenzy will subside. "Things really do settle in at a more normal level" after a time, he said.
Hozza also expects that eventually, things will work out as well as can be expected, and said the entrance lane will be opened whenever the hubbub dies down. Clark suggested that a few tweaks, such as better surface markings within the parking lot to clarify the desired traffic pattern particularly regarding the lines for the take-out window, might help.
I thought perhaps the MacArthur entry point could have been farther to the north, basically at the northern end of the restaurant property, while leaving the exit where it is at the southern tip (currently the two are adjacent at the southern end). That basically was the setup a decade or more ago when a gas station graced the site. But Clark said my entry point's proximity to the Fairmont intersection wouldn't pass muster; traffic slowing in preparation to enter White Castle would obstruct the flow on MacArthur, including turning from either direction on Fairmont, he said, and I realized he's absolutely right.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.