Turnpike project raises concerns

Abandoned roadway proposed as possible recreational attraction

BREEZEWOOD — While a proposal to turn an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike into a recreational destination — comprised of trailheads and tunnel art galleries, among other features — has garnered support from many, some expressed concerns about the project’s estimated costs and number of visitors at a meeting Thursday.

Leading project engineer Craig Bachik told about 20 attendees at the Breezewood Volunteer Fire Company that the project would cost an estimated $5 million and create an anticipated 40 to 55 full-time jobs once completed.

He added he anticipates the recreational center — which would include an 8.5-mile stretch in Bedford and Fulton counties — will bring in more than 150,000 visitors and an estimated $368,000 in tax revenue annually by 2022.

The Old PA Pike Trail project is almost underway as stakeholders await for the state’s response on establishing the project’s joint authority.

Although Bachik spoke of the project’s possible economic benefits, some meeting attendees shared their uncertainty and uneasiness about the traffic and property taxes.

A property owner who lives near the turnpike said he wanted the tunnels to be “blown shut,” stating how a milk truck or another car would park in his driveway and how he was tired of it.

“What are they going to stop for? There’s nothing here,” he said of visitors traveling through the area. He suggested putting up a fence around his property once work on the project begins, an idea Bachik hinted could be a possibility.

Another meeting attendee commented on the turnpike’s lack of activity for more than 30 years between 1969 to 2001, the date the Southern Alleghenies Conser­vancy took ownership it.

He added he’s never been asked about his thoughts on the project even though he lives near the turnpike and questioned what would happen to property taxes with the project costs.

Bachik assured he and other meeting attendees there would be no tax burden, stating the project would instead help by generating tax revenue and would rely on other streams of funding.

Responding to concerns about property taxes, meeting attendee and Breeze­wood business owner James Bittner argued property values are dropping in town because the turnpike has increased toll prices leading to a reduction in traffic.

“You don’t have to be blind to drive through Breezewood and see the closed and shuttered properties, places that have gone into disrepair or closed,” Bittner said.

He added the town needs some type economic development in order to “shore up” the local properties and businesses so that they don’t close, leading to lower property values and increased taxes.

While some attendees expressed concerns, Bed­ford County Commissioner Barry Dallara said the commissioners are “extremely supportive” of the turnpike project and want it to be successful.

Commissioner Josh Lang added the turnpike project has received dozens and dozens of endorsements. He noted the county has a population issue, adding an attraction such as the proposed recreational center would bring people to the area.

“I think when we talk about ways to create jobs, ways to bring in new economic opportunities to the area, these are the types of things that do that,” Lang said.

“The cost of doing nothing is greater of a cost,” he said of not taking the opportunity to create something of the abandoned turnpike. He added meetings held with property owners and stakeholders would try to address the public’s concerns about the project.

County advisory committee member, John Carlin, who’s assisted with the project, added the joint authority, once established, will consider the property owners’ input to help them with the building phases of the recreational trail.

The recreational trail would also have controlled security and maintenance, according to Bachik.

Bachik also told meeting attendees two key steps to get the project going in­clude adding a pedestrian bridge to access the Breeze­wood entrance of the recreational trail and to make the turnpike tunnels safe for use.

The engineer said he is trying to have all public comments about the project collected by Nov. 9 and a finalized draft of the plan by the end of the month.

“It’s all about turning ideas into places,” Bachik told the crowd.

Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.

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