The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

October 25, 2012

Turnpike upgrade means loss of steps to New Baltimore church

NEW BALTIMORE — The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Thursday unveiled plans for a

$180 million reconstruction and widening of an 8-mile stretch in Somerset and Bedford counties.

The project will force five families to relocate and impact an estimated 20 other property owners.

The work will allow for curve flattening on the highway, widening it to six lanes and addressing a sliding hillside. It will mean the loss of an icon familiar to travelers, a pull-off and two sets of stairs allowing passers-by access to St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church.

Access to St. John, long known by travelers as the “Turnpike Church,” will be eliminated as part of the long-planned improvements, said turnpike spokeswoman Renee Colborn.

“As for now, the steps are still in place, but will eventually be removed,” Colborn said prior to the public meeting.

Residents received the first detailed looked at the work, which is set to begin 2.2 miles east of the Allegheny Tunnel in Somerset County and continue to a mile east of the Kegg Maintenance Facility in Bedford Township.

The project will cross through Allegheny Township and New Baltimore Borough in Somerset County and Juniata Township in Bedford County.

All of the property acquisition will be along the eastbound side of the highway and will vary from a few feet to many acres, said Kevin Scheurich, the engineering project manager with the commission.

A time line shows work to begin this fall on the replacement of the Cider Road Bridge, with replacement of the Findley Street Bridge in 2014.

Work on the sliding hillside will begin in 2014 with completion the next year, while widening on the highway will begin in 2016, with completion in early 2020.

New Baltimore resident Frank Restly came to the meeting because of concerns he has regarding water runoff.

“Our stream has flooded a number of times,” he said of the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River. “I want to make sure they don’t make it worse.”

Anna Burkett, who has lived in New Baltimore for all of her 88 years, said she will not be directly impacted by the project but wants to make sure that as little as possible is done to impact on St. John.

She has fond memories of many people who stopped along the turnpike and came to church.

“There was a lot of people who came for the Masses,” she said.

While the pull-over along the eastbound lane is only onto the shoulder, a small area along the westbound lane has long provided space for travelers to stop, go down about 12 steps and access the church.

The stairs have been deemed too risky to remain in use at such close proximity to a high-speed, limited-access road, turnpike officials said when the reconstruction project was initially announced.

They were built by contractors more than a half-century ago in exchange for the church agreeing to turn over  land  to the turnpike commission to allow easier access for construction of the toll road.

As a result, parishioners attending St. John have seen hundreds of travelers through the years visit for Mass on Sundays or Saturday evenings and many have stopped in when services were not going on.

The story told by locals is that the right-of-way deal forced relocating graves of Carmelite priests who once lived at the monastery.

But any steps-for-land deal must have been a verbal one, because a written pact cannot be found, turnpike officials said in 2007.  Church members have no record of an agreement.

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