2014-09-25 / Front Page

Pike2Bike Rehab Proposal Heard In Harrisburg Monday

By Chanin Rotz-Mountz
NEWS EDITOR


The abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, which includes the Sideling Hill tunnel, pictured above, was the topic of interest for state lawmakers and county officials attending Monday’s environmental issues forum held at the Capitol building in Harrisburg. The recent proposal to rehabilitate the corridor and its tunnels has peaked the interest of legislators, who have tentative plans to see the 13-mile abandoned roadway that spans Fulton and Bedford counties. The abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, which includes the Sideling Hill tunnel, pictured above, was the topic of interest for state lawmakers and county officials attending Monday’s environmental issues forum held at the Capitol building in Harrisburg. The recent proposal to rehabilitate the corridor and its tunnels has peaked the interest of legislators, who have tentative plans to see the 13-mile abandoned roadway that spans Fulton and Bedford counties. The abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike has gained notoriety over the years as a “unique” attraction with its tunnels and scenic location spanning the hills and valleys of Fulton and Bedford counties. As a perfect venue to shoot the movie, “The Road,” to a feature article in the most recent issue of Pennsylvania magazine, the Pike2Bike corridor is touted as a “destination” like no other on the East Coast.

On Monday, Pike2Bike gained the attention of lawmakers in Harrisburg as a featured environmental topic during a forum of the Joint Legislative Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee chaired by Sen. Scott Hutchinson. Craig Shuey, chief operating officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, and Bedford County Planning Commission director Donald Schwartz served as keynote speakers during what was the first environmental issues forum of the fall legislative session.

Shuey led the 30 plus in attendance on a historical journey or overview of the old turnpike that was initially designed to be a railroad in the 1880s. Construction would eventually be halted in 1885, leaving many to refer to the incomplete project as “Vanderbilt’s Folly,” said Shuey, who added the area was abandoned for another 50 years until the need arose for an alternative traffic route for motorists making the trek from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.

On October 1, 1940, the turnpike officially opened, but motorized traffic that first weekend “shattered traffic projections,” Shuey stated. Bottlenecks where traffic lanes were reduced from four to two were addressed in four areas with the addition of extra tubes. However, in November 1968 the decision was made to abandon the 13-mile stretch of the turnpike in Fulton and Bedford counties that includes the Sideling Hill and Rays Hill tunnels.

Shuey as well as Schwartz referenced the many, varied uses the turnpike has seen, including hiking, biking and a site for military testing and snowplow training. Under the ownership of the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy (SAC) since 2001, the possibility of rehabilitating the abandoned roadway and tunnels has again been brought to light.

Schwartz told those on hand, which included Fulton County commissioners Rodney McCray and Irvin Dasher, Fulton County Planning director Mary K. Seville, Sen. John Eichelberger, Rep. Jesse Topper, Buchanan State Forest district forester Jim Smith and the Bedford County commissioners, the proposal could be an economic opportunity for both counties.

Question have arisen, though, who will assume ownership of the Pike2Bike corridor and where will the money be found to not only fund the project but to properly maintain the area once completed. As SAC cannot complete the project on its own, several proposals regarding ownership currently exist, Schwartz said, such as a nonprofit agency, a state takeover, a separate county partnership or a joint municipal authority.

Schwartz suggested the joint authority would offer the smoothest way to run the property as well as to raise funding. Onsite management options could also include a manager, part-time administrator and plenty of hands-on assistance from volunteers.

“It’s the chicken and the egg,” Schwartz said. “You can’t get money until you own it.”

The initial 2006 master plan for the rehabilitation project suggested a price tag of $3.05 million. Eight years later, an economic impact study completed by Pittsburgh based Fourth Economy Consulting delves into three traildevelopment scenarios. The “safety first” scenario could cost $3.85 million with an investment return of 11 years and 25,000 visitors annually. The priciest of the scenarios, known as the “world class trail,” would cost an estimated $6.87 million. It would draw in 225,000 visitors on a yearly basis and include a six-year investment return.

Schwartz further suggested the need to finish the project in “one shot” instead of completing the rehab in eight phases over a 10-year time frame, which was proposed in the initial Pike2Bike master plan.

Several individuals offered comment or posed questions following the detailed presentation by Shuey and Schwartz. Joe Stafford, executive director of the Bicycle Access Council, referred to the corridor as a “unique” destination. He noted he is “emotionally tied” to this project as he has been looking for a route, in addition to Route S, that could be used while crossing the state by bicycle. He concluded the Pike2Bike corridor is a “real asset” and opportunity for Pennsylvania bicyclists.

Members of the Joint Legislative Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee have tentative plans to come to the area to see Pike2Bike firsthand. They were informed the area is closed to the public, even though it remains heavily used by bicyclists and hikers, and those entering the property do so at their own risk.

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