Looking at transportation projects in the Center Region and Center County over the past 30 years, one person – mostly behind the scenes – has been involved in many of them.
Tom Zilla, Senior Transportation Planner for the Central County Metropolitan Planning Organization, is retiring on Friday after nearly 34 years with the CCMPO. He and the rest of the office provide staff support to the Metropolitan Planning Organization and work as a liaison between the various levels of government involved in transport planning. Primarily, they prioritize improvements and find a way to fund them, he said.
In Center County, this has resulted in a number of transformative projects that have improved lives and improved transportation safety.
A “considerable impact” on travel
Zilla was involved in many major transportation projects in Center County, including the Interstate 99 construction project in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“He has had a huge impact on how people in Central County get around the county,” Marcella Hoffman, Central Regional Planning Agency office manager, wrote in an email.
Jim May, CCMPO Director of Planning, spoke about Zilla’s career and accomplishments ahead of the Council of Governments of the Center Region passed a congratulatory resolution for Zilla on Monday. He said Zilla had a busy career “making transportation safer, better, and more convenient in Center County.”
“For Tom, I think some of the things he did were just his normal way of working,” May said. “But for some of us and myself included, it’s really special to work with someone who seems to have such a great sense of well-being and kindness, compassion for others.”
Zilla is passionate about his work, May said. He worked hard planning projects and applying for funding, getting projects through the review process and getting them approved. It’s an incredibly complex process, May said, but Zilla has been “excellent” at it.
He helped plan I-99 from Altoona, the I-99 and I-80 interchange, and most recently worked on the State College Area Connector project, May said.
The resolution notes other “back-to-back projects” Zilla has been involved in over the years: Warner Boulevard Improvement Project in Harris Township, Atherton Street Reconstruction Project in Patton and Ferguson Townships. and Whitehall Road improvements in the Borough of State College, Township of College and Ferguson. Canton.
May also talked about Zilla’s ability to build relationships. Zilla said he’s proud that there are a handful of Center County residents who would email or call him for a status report or project update on different transportation projects. .
“One of the things I tried to do… is to maintain a relationship at that level so that if people call, they can get information. I don’t always have information for them. I don’t always get what they want to hear. But I try to be pretty direct with them and tell them that, even if it’s ‘I don’t know’,” Zilla said. If he doesn’t know, he can always tell them about the process and how to participate.
During Tuesday Center County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Michael Pipe said the council would present Zilla with a certificate of recognition.
“Tom has been an incredible asset to transportation needs, community development, and also someone who is just a ray of sunshine and truly positively impacts everything he encounters,” said Pipe. “…Tom is certainly a thoughtful and selfless person who has been truly respectful and collaborative, (he is) truly a role model for how we can live our lives.”
Small and large projects
The $96 million Route 322/Potters Mills Gap and I-99 project, the county’s largest freeway project in many years, remains in Zilla’s mind as the most memorable. But he also talked about important community projects, like the 322 Railroad Street bypass in Philipsburg and Blue Course Drive on the west side of State College. Many projects are driven by security concerns, he said.
“Safety has clearly been the driving factor in many of these projects. In other areas you sometimes have projects developed for economic development reasons, … but the vast majority of our projects here in Center County have been security related,” Zilla said.
He also helped plan and program funds for a number of intersections in Center County, some of which are under construction today, such as the intersection of Route 26 and Route 45 in the Township of Ferguson. Another is Route 64 and 550 in Walker Township.
“That one took – I mean, we pushed for years and years and years and years to get this one funded and done. So I’m really thrilled,” Zilla said.
“We had many deaths in Sion, so that was definitely a priority.”
Zilla talked about a smaller project years ago on Route 55 and Fillmore Road in Benner Township. Although not a major road project, it stood out for Zilla because it brought together many different entities that prioritized and funded it.
“It’s down from the airport in University Park, there’s a little white church that’s on one of the corners. At one point, route 550 had a big bump in the road just outside of it. intersection, so this project eliminated the hump and widened some of the approaches so you can see better coming out of that intersection,” Zilla said.
Changes over the years
A lot has changed since he started in 1988. He has crayons on his desk because “back then” they had to color maps by hand. Now it’s produced by geographic information systems.
“When you stop and think about 30 years, like I always think about, that’s when I got here in 1988, 30 years ago, that was 1958,” Zilla said. “So you think about change from that perspective, it helps you put a bit of perspective on everything that’s going on.”
He recalls that turning lanes were added to main roads in State College, such as on East College Avenue toward the Nittany Mall. Back then, the Science Park Road intersection we know today was actually two different intersections, what transportation people call a “Y-junction.” As part of the addition of turning lanes, the Science Park Road intersection was placed in one location.
“They were very, very difficult to get in and out of and we had a lot of accidents and even a few fatalities. So putting it in one place and putting a signal there made a big difference. So that was another big improvement in safety and that came with the addition of turning lanes in the hallway,” Zilla said. “There’s really been some major projects going on, on the road side.”
The biggest change Zilla has seen in transportation is technology. PennDOT publishes a wealth of information and data on travel patterns, traffic conditions, traffic lights, and road conditions, and it’s all available on a GIS-based computer program.
“A lot of this information existed at the time, but it was literally in reams of paper. I could have a two-inch-thick folder here…that showed all the Center County locations and what all the information was. on crashes for those high crash locations. Whereas a lot of that is now available through the computer and mapped with data attached to it. So the technology is amazing,” he said.
There is one thing, however, that Zilla doesn’t see changing in the future.
“Lack of funding. There will never be enough funds to do all that people would like to do to meet transportation needs. So I think it will be an ongoing challenge,” he said.
As he retires, Zilla said he has family obligations he wants to take care of and also wants to work on his “to-do list at home,” which he says is long enough. Eventually, he hopes to participate in volunteer opportunities to give back to the community.
“But family is going to be first,” he said.