The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 21, 2013

Turnpike tunnel changes weighed

SOMERSET — It’s been more than 15 years in the works, but every indication is that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will soon take a major step toward replacing or bypassing the Allegheny Tunnel, a longtime troublesome area.

L. Robert Kimball of Ebensburg, consulting engineers for the commission, is reviewing six alternatives, all considered viable to solve the tunnel issues, said Jeffrey Davis, design engineer for the turnpike.

The conclusions of the Kimball firm will be coupled with testimony from an October public hearing in Somerset and the commission will reach a conclusion by late 2014.

“This has to compete with other programs on our capital budget,” Davis told The Tribune-Democrat on Friday. “The funding has to be identified, but we’re moving forward and we want to keep it moving.”

Estimated costs start with a low of $242 million to a high of $694 million.

But conservationists, especially members of the Mountain Fish and Stream Club, are concerned that cost will play too large a factor and they will lose a significant portion of their land to a bypass along the side of the mountain.

“We certainly don’t favor any of the cut options,” said Randy Musser, president of the 80-year-old club. “They (the cuts) would damage the mountain and create all kinds of problems.”

The tunnel, especially the westbound lane climbing up the mountain, has been problematic for years, Davis said.

“The tunnels are very old. They’re in bad condition,” he said. “We have a capacity problem with three lanes westbound squeezed into two lanes at the tunnel.”

Adding to the problem is the steadily increasing use of the turnpike, he said.

It is one of the longest tunnels on the turnpike, coming in at 6,070 feet. The original was constructed more than 70 years ago, when the toll road became the example for the nation’s interstate highway system.

A push for a change, be it new tunnels or cuts through the mountainside, started in 1996. Objections were raised and the project was put on the back burner, Davis said.

It came up again in 2001 and was again put on hold.

“Now we’re starting it back up again,” he said.

Updated environmental assessments have been done, and while there still appears to be some resistance to doing a cut around the mountain, word is something likely will happen this time around.

As with the Route 219 project from Meyersdale to Somerset, the Indiana bat is something that may have to be addressed. But the assessments make the project appear doable, Davis said.

“I don’t think we saw any major showstoppers,” he said.

The whole thing has the conservation club a little nervous.

“We own most of the ridge where the cuts would go through,” said Musser. “The cut options are the most devastating to the environment.”

A cut would “break the mountain,” Musser said, and substantially change wild animal migration patterns.

One option not under consideration, Musser said, would be to build a new tunnel to the south, a single portal with three lanes, and keep the other tunnel open to westbound.

One portal could be for trucks only and the other for cars, a move that would eliminate congestion.

Also of concern by some locals is the potential impact on municipal water sources.

If all goes as planned, after the option is selected next year, preliminary and final design will get underway and take two to three years. Construction should be wrapped up by 2020, Davis said.

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