Study released for abandoned turnpike

BEDFORD – Taking their first serious stride toward a hoped-for multimillion-dollar renovation of the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, planners in Bedford and Fulton counties have released a study that places a price tag on the work and measures the benefits it could bring.

The 52-page report, prepared by Pittsburgh-based Fourth Economy Consulting for a $17,000 fee, details three possible plans to convert part of the 13-mile turnpike stretch from an unsafe, overgrown curiosity into a tourist destination. Each plan would cost millions of dollars – money that could come from several as-yet uncertain sources, Bedford County Planning Director Donald Schwartz said Friday.

“The idea is that this project, ultimately to be an economic driver, needs to be a corridor, not a trail,” Schwartz said. “A destination in and of itself, not just a trail.”

The plans range from the simple, including safety renovations and road work, to the complex: The boldest scheme would include a history museum in McConnellsburg and a nature preserve near the abandoned turnpike. They range in price from $3.85 million to nearly $7 million, according to the report.

The consultants reviewed hundreds of online questionnaire responses for ideas and analyzed comparable trail projects to predict the longterm effect on business. Upgrades could draw tens to hundreds of thousands of guests every year, the study said, noting that even in its run-down state, the turnpike section already attracts droves of cyclists and hikers.

Abandoned since the 1960s when a bypass rendered the mountainous turnpike stretch and its two tunnels obsolete, the area has seen many uses but has never been officially designated as a tourist attraction. Its eerie, post-apocalyptic atmosphere has drawn visitors, but its lack of basic trail amenities – like parking and interior lights – has kept it from broader popularity.

Government officials and some business owners, particularly in nearby Breezewood, have pushed for renovations that could attract overnight guests from throughout the mid-Atlantic.

Discussing the plans, Schwartz described a range of possible tourist attractions: Races and seasonal festivals could be held there, he said, and history buffs could learn about the turnpike’s early days. All that activity could draw millions and spur more local business investment, the report said.

Even if officials reach that point, however, the process could take years. County commissioners in Bedford and Fulton have to approve the economic study before another consultant can be commissioned for a more specific, detailed plan of action.

In order to secure the millions in state and federal grants that they’d need, planners would first have to turn the trail over to both county governments, who would likely share the land, Schwartz said. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue, he said – county officials don’t want to own the land without a clear-cut plan, but funding will be hard to come by until the counties have control.

The site is currently controlled by the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy.

Once the money is found, possibly in part from Marcellus Shale-based state greenway funds, workers can render the enormous tunnels safe and resurface the 8 1/2 miles of road, Schwartz said. More daring expenses, like a museum, restrooms or picnic stops, could come later if the first phase succeeds.

“It’s not just going to be a trail, no way,” he said. “Once that thinking changes, everything opens up.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.