Tunnel vision: Abandoned turnpike trail receives funding to create recreational opportunity

Cyclists ride through the Sideling Hill Tunnel Thursday. State and federal agencies recently authorized funds to pay for construction of a 10-foot wide asphalt-like trail on one of the old lanes and other improvements to turn the abandoned route into a recreational area for cyclists, runners and hikers.

Mirror photo by William Kibler

WATERFALL — Jim Edwards can see light at the end of tunnels that can provide a recreational and economic boost for Bedford and Fulton counties.

Edwards, chairman of the Bedford Fulton Joint Recreation Authority, stood Thursday in front of the entrance to Sideling Hill Tunnel — one of two along the 8.5-mile route that the authority now owns.

“We can finally see light at the end,” said Edwards, earning chuckles from the crowd of about 60, including the heads of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Hundreds of visitors use “the old PA Pike Trail” — riding their bikes or walking or running along the crumbling asphalt and through the dark tunnels — but there are safety concerns. Access is largely informal, and there’s lots of graffiti and some trash.

The authority has long wanted to turn the trail into a “family friendly park,” said former authority secretary Rod Rafetto, and now it has the money to do that.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn outlines the planned improvements to a proposed trail on an abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Thursday.
Mirror photo by William Kibler

The state recently authorized $1 million from its Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program for the necessary work, and on Thursday, officials announced that the federal Appalachian Regional Commission had authorized an additional $358,000.

Altogether, that money will pay for construction of a 10-foot wide asphalt-like trail on one of the old lanes and the filling of deep, uncovered storm drain inlets that are hazardous, according to Craig Bachik, landscape architect with Navarro & Wright, a consultant to the authority.

The authority is also hoping to receive a $380,000 DCNR grant that would pay for creation of a parking area with a pavilion and restrooms at the site of a former restaurant plaza at the eastern end of the 8.5-mile section, Bachik said.

Other turnpike work

The work on the former plaza site would combine with a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission project already underway at the Sideling Hill restaurant plaza on the active turnpike, creating a trailhead entry with amenities for the eastern end of the 8.5-mile stretch, according to Bachik.

The authority is working on a plan to provide parking at the western end in Breezewood, Bachik said.

There was plenty of enthusiasm about the planned improvements at the news conference, but there have been prior bouts of enthusiasm that resulted in disappointment, Raffeto noted.

“Yeah, but not (previously) with money in hand,” Bachik said.

The 8.5-mile section is owned now by the authority, having been sold by the Turnpike Commission in 2001.

“It’s our responsibility to stop the destruction and graffiti,” Edwards said.

The venue already has “magic,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn.

Her agency is enthusiastic about the additional potential, enough to justify her own presence there along with several of her colleagues in the department, she said.

The project combines outdoor recreation with “historic infrastructure,” a formula that is working in many other places, she said.

It’s a tool for economic development, said Nathan Reigner, newly appointed first director of outdoor recreation for DCNR.

When the work is complete, the trail can help businesses draw and keep key employees, Reigner said, citing a local snack company that is about to lose a worker it had been grooming for leadership, because the worker is drawn to another location due to “quality of life” issues.

If the proposed project were already complete, that worker might be inclined to stay, he said.

A good quality of life depends on the availability of outdoor recreation, arts and culture, good neighbor relations, good health care and entrepreneurship opportunities, he said.

The turnpike project touches on all of those — providing an opportunity for outdoor recreation, connections with fellow hikers and cyclists, healthful exercise and even for now, graffiti art, he said, with a rueful look at the colorful tunnel entrance.

Creative, innovative employees can go anywhere, Reigner said. “(But) people are drawn to this place.”

The abandoned section of turnpike presents a “unique, one of a kind opportunity” — the kind that comes along “once-in-a-lifetime,” Bachik said.

Section abandoned

The section owned by the authority is only part of a 13-mile section abandoned by the Turnpike Commission in 1968.

The commission abandoned that section with its three tunnels — Sideling Hill, Ray’s Hill and Laurel — after replacing it with a stretch that went over, instead of under, the slopes.

It built that alternative route to eliminate traffic jams that had been occurring on the four-lane highway when motorists approached the two-lane tunnels, according to the Pike2Bike Master Plan.

It built second, parallel tunnels to solve that problem elsewhere on the turnpike.

After its abandonment, the 13-mile stretch “quietly attracted a variety of visitors, drawn to the natural setting, which runs through the Buchanan State Forest,” the master plan states.

That stretch was an “abandoned, unattended playground” for people like Barry Clark of Breezewood, who grew up exploring it, riding motorcycles on it and hunting along it, Clark said Thursday.

The decline of travelers’ visits to the motels and restaurants of Breezewood in recent decades led community leaders in the area to look toward the recreational potential of the abandoned turnpike as a way to replace the loss, according to the master plan.

Originally a rail corridor

Construction on what became the turnpike tunnels began in the 1880s, when the New York Central Railroad began work on a southern Pennsylvania route to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s central Pennsylvania mainline, which goes through Altoona.

That work on the “South Penn” rail route ended when financier J.P. Morgan brokered a deal to avoid what he feared would be a ruinous battle between the railroads, according to the master plan.

In the 1930s, planner Edward Flikinger proposed building the turnpike, the nation’s first “superhighway,” along the abandoned rail route, taking advantage of the work that had been done in the previous century, according to the master plan.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

In the works

The Turnpike Commission’s trailhead project at the Sideling Hill travel plaza along the active turnpike will include expanded parking, a pavilion, expanded green space, bike repair stations, a bike wash station, bike racks, EV bike charging stations (eventually), wayfinding signs, landscaping, lighting and a secure walkway, according to the commission. The trailhead will provide access not just to the 8.5-mile section of abandoned turnpike owned by the Bedford Fulton Joint Recreation Authority, but a total of about 600 miles of trails within 25 miles of the plaza, according to the commission.

The authority’s proposed work on the abandoned turnpike will include creation of a 10-foot wide path atop the former highway. The material will be generated by milling the existing asphalt, then placing the resulting gravel, rolling it, then stabilizing it with a binder. Workers will also fill hazardous deep inlet drains with rubble stone. Vandals wishing to sell scrap steel have removed the grates that covered them and have cut rebar that had formed access ladders within them, leaving stubs that could slice up the flesh of someone who fell into them, one official said.

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