'Finally, finally, finally,' thruway project has the money needed to break ground
SHAMOKIN DAM - There is an exit sign at last on the long highway to the Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway.
State Sen. John R. Gordner (R-27), with state Department of Transportation (PennDOT) officials and state legislators, announced Wednesday morning at the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce office that the state government is expected to commit $558 million toward the massive project as part of the Corbett administration's "Decade of Investment" plan that targets $1.8 billion within five years toward highways, bridges and mass transit.
The area will "finally, finally, finally" see the project constructed, Gordner said, with a goal of alleviating congestion on the Routes 11-15 "strip" north of Selinsgrove.
As the largest single project in the "Decade of Investment," the thruway will be funded through $150 million from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, and the remaining $408 million will come from the Motor License Fund, which gets its money from the state gasoline tax, motor vehicle license and registration fees and other fees. The governor would increase the revenue by gradually lifting the cap on the state Oil Company Franchise Tax over five years.
However, said Gordner, there may be other funding streams before the plan is finalized.
The state senator was joined by PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, PennDOT District 3-0 District Executive Sandra Tosca and a thruway delegation consisting of Gene Yaw (R-23) and state Reps. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-108), Garth Everett (R-84), Fred Keller (R-85) and Kurt Masser (R-107).
Gordner compared the process of reaching this "historic" announcement to participating in the Berwick Run For The Diamonds marathon, which is known for having a 1.2-mile hill with its final apex hidden to runners by a series of curves.
"Sometimes when you set off on an activity or you set off on a project, it is like a long course. It may be a 40-year course," Gordner said. "There are lots of turns and zigs and zags, and it seems like you're always, always, always going up hill."
The project has seen many "turns and movements and stops and hibernations," he said, referencing a term used in July 2008 when PennDOT indefinitely put the project on hold.
Approval still needed
While the plan must be approved as part of the 2013-14 state budget by July, Gordner said he wouldn't have called a press conference to make the announcement without the confidence that it will be approved.
The "Decade of Investment" PennDOT budget bill must make its way through the legislative committees, through the House and Senate and onto the governor's desk to be signed, Schoch said.
"When we do, we will move aggressively," he said.
Tosca explained she would be assembling a team to develop a financial plan in anticipation of approval in July, which will need also federal approval from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) because of the federal funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
After FHWA approval, which is expected by October, Tosca said the next step is to obtain permits, acquire rights-of-way, relocate utilities and prepare for construction.
The first contract, for which bids could be accepted by April 2015, would be for the $160 million bridge across the west branch of the Susquehanna River linking Route 15 in Winfield with Route 147 north of Northumberland, she said.
The next phase of the project would be to construct the 6-mile northern section where the four lanes end on Route 147. On the other side of the river, the project will continue through West Chillisquaque Township into Shamokin Dam, where it will connect with Routes 11-15.
Once the northern section is complete, it will be opened for use, she said.
Once the northern section of the project is built, the next phase of the project would be to complete the 7-mile southern portion. The southern portion runs parallel to the current Routes 11-15 toward Selinsgrove and connects to Route 11-15 again at what is now the northern terminus of the Selinsgrove bypass.
The last phase of the project is to connect Route 61 from Sunbury to the thruway in Shamokin Dam.
While this is a 10-year project, Tosca said officials are working to expedite the schedule.
The plan is not only about revenue, but also about ensuring that every dollar spent is used wisely and efficiently, Schoch said.
PennDOT will soon release a list of other projects that are part of the "Decade of Investment" on its website, which will include details and video about each project, Schoch said.
"What you care about is delivering projects like this as quickly as we can," he said.
Schoch said the project is important to the economy, safety and lifestyle of the area surrounding Routes 11-15 and Pennsylvania as a whole.
"When you're sitting in traffic on a daily basis and congestion, that's not supporting your lifestyle. When you're waiting and you don't know how long it's going to take to get home, that's not supporting your lifestyle," he said.
A project like this provides dependable travel times and prevents the loss of businesses that relocate because of the difficulty getting in and out of the region, Schoch said.
Shamokin Dam Mayor Joe McGranaghan, who has also served as the thruway project task force chairman, said it's been a "long and somewhat tortured" path to arrive here.
He said the business communities are in a "state of panic" due to the amount of time - sometimes an hour - it takes for people to travel between Northumberland and Shamokin Dam.
Although spending money in today's economic climate is tough, McGranaghan said it's a move that has to be made.
"The long range implications of doing nothing are far too horrendous," he said.
Following the press conference, Culver said the announcement is exciting after years of being part of the process.
"We're not finished, though. There's a lot to be considered between now and the budget," she said. "First and foremost, it will deal with the safety of our residents, and the economic development we will receive is much needed for this area."
Masser said his constituents use Routes 11-15 frequently to travel to work as far away as Harrisburg.
"It's exciting to see it finally getting across the finish line and to see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.