The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 2, 2012

Pike targets unstable hill

Kathy Mellott

NEW BALTIMORE — With the need to move a mountain, or at least much of a hillside, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission engineers are designing a project to eliminate a slope on the eastbound side of the toll road near the Somerset-Bedford County line.

The area, west of New Baltimore, has been a source of concern for some time. In recent years, caution signs warning of falling rocks have been erected.

Removing most of the hillside for a stretch of about 800 linear feet is part of a $180 million widening and bridge replacement project.

“This is going to be a long-term fix for a long-term problem,” turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said.

The long-planned widening of the eight-mile section between mile markers 125 and 133 will address related problems in the area, DeFebo said.

“In these reconstruction projects, we take advantage to correct anything that may be lingering out there,” DeFebo said.

When the turnpike was built in the late 1930s, engineers were challenged by the mountains. Many hillsides were trimmed away through Somerset, Bedford and points east.

This particular stretch has been problematic.

Estimates are that portions of the hillside are shifting by 5 to 10 inches a year, said Kevin Scheurich, engineer project manager for the turnpike commission.

The site, just west of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, known to travelers as “The Turnpike Church,” will require excavating between 1.5 million and 3 million cubic yards of dirt and rock covering the equivalent of 35 to 45 acres.

Much of the land on top of the hill is wooded, said Ken Heirendt, geotechnical engineering manager for the turnpike.

Most of the area is turnpike property, but some right-of-way easements will be needed, turnpike officials said.

The overall project has been in planning stages for five years.

It will increase total travel lanes from four to six on this section of the highway. Plans also call for flattening a curve.

Three bridges, including Cider Road West in Juniata Township and the Findley Street Bridge in New Baltimore will be replaced. The Cider Hill East Bridge was replaced this year.

While engineers are still designing the slope remediation, plans are to seek bids in 2013 with the work to be carried out in 2014 and 2015.

Widening of westbound lanes will be done in 2016 and 2017, and the eastern lanes will be widened in 2018 and 2019.

The area serves more than 45,000 cars and trucks daily. The rebuilt highway will have greater capacity to address congestion along with wider medians and shoulders.  

The project will replace pavement that is nearly 75 years old.

Some work has been done to the sliding slope through the years. A significant effort was made in 1950, when a flat area or bench was constructed at about the hillside’s midpoint.

Officials said the area has not been a significant problem for motorists. The shoulder is maintained regularly, and no falling rock or earth is believed to have landed on the roadway.

“This is an area our maintenance folks are aware of. It is an area they check every day,” DeFebo said.

The project will prompt five families to relocate and have lesser impact on 20 other properties.

All property acquisition will be along the south side of the highway, varying from a few feet to a number of acres.

Since 1940, a pull-off and two sets of stairs have allowed motorists access to the St. John church in New Baltimore. That will be removed.

The project will begin 2.2 miles east of the Allegheny Tunnel in Somerset County and continue to one mile east of the Kegg maintenance facility in Bedford County.

Officials still are considering where all of the rock and earth will be taken. That likely will be part of negotiations with contract bidders.

“There are different options which will factor into the costs of construction,” DeFebo said.

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