Outdoors enthusiasts waiting patiently for the state to pony up emergency funding for repairs to the Poe Paddy Tunnel might want to stop holding their breath, lest they prefer turning a deep shade of blue.
Fliers posted at either end of the closed tunnel advise that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is seeking such funds to reopen the heavily traveled shortcut through Paddy Mountain. And that may have been the hope when those notices were posted early in the spring, after officials became aware of the potential for slabs of rock the size of a Toyota Corolla working loose and falling from the tunnel’s ceiling. In reality, though, while help might be on the way, it won’t arrive in time to reopen the tunnel this summer.
“It’s not like DCNR (the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) has a million dollars sitting around,” explains Amy Griffith, the District Forester in charge of the Bald Eagle State Forest..
Which anybody who has followed the state budget process over the past decade of so already knows. Since taking office, Governor Tom Corbett has cut DCNR’s budget by $28.1 million, or 34.8 percent.
To be fair, Corbett’s cuts have simply been a continuation of a trend that began during the Rendell administration. Rendell began cutting DCNR spending his first year in office, and by the time his two terms were up, the department’s budget had been slashed by nearly 25 percent.
It’s also worth pointing out Corbett’s budgets have made up some of the cuts by diverting money from gas and oil lease royalties. In other words, money to conserve natural resources is generated by destroying them.
The irony is not lost on Jason, a 35-year-old, fearful-of-government, mountain biker, who insisted his last name was not important.
“They have money for everything else. They should have money to fix this. They have money to put in heavy duty bridges and roads to get the logs out,” he says. “If there was a natural gas source on the other side, they’d have it opened up so wide you could drive a B-29 through there.”
There are no gas wells. The tunnel is located well south of the Marcellus Shale range, near the spot where Centre, Mifflin and Union counties meet, along Penns Creek, roughly 25 miles east of State College. It used to be an important link in a rail line that hauled freight between Lewisburg and Tyrone. But that line was abandoned decades ago.
These days, the tunnel’s traffic consists of hikers, bicyclists, fishermen and water sports enthusiasts. So until further notice, it is closed.
Staffing levels at DCNR have been cut almost 10 percent over the past decade, despite the increased workload brought about by the Marcellus Shale gas boom. The cuts that forced the elimination of lifeguards at many state park beaches also resulted in the elimination of, or a reduction in hours for more than 1,100 seasonal employees.
So it is probably no surprise when Griffith says DCNR was caught off guard when a citizen sounded the alarm about the safety of the tunnel’s rock ceiling. Even though many years ago the eastern end of the tunnel received repairs to eliminate the same kind of danger, Griffith could not recall the last time her folks had checked the tunnel.
“We have not inspected that tunnel on a regular basis,” she says.
Same reason she seemed surprised to hear people were routinely circumventing the safety barriers put in place to keep people out of the tunnel. At one end, somebody cut a hole large enough to fit a bicycle through in the orange, plastic mesh fencing portion of the barricade. At the other end, because the wood frame of the barrier was not even anchored, people simply slid it out of the way and squeezed through.
Those who continue to use the tunnel will get cited if Griffith’s staff catches them. But she is quick to add: “There is only so much we can do. We can’t post guards. We have 200,000 acres of forest we’re trying to manage.”
It’s scary to think the rock danger might have gone undetected if not for the amateur geologist who noticed it. Griffith says the tunnel is “heavily used.” She doesn’t have any traffic counts, but she knows a lot of people use it, especially in the summer.
For mountain bikers, the tunnel is a key link between the popular rail trail along Penns Creek from Cherry Run to Poe Paddy State Park, and a network of remote, dirt, forest roads through the mountains. For fishermen, it is the link between the popular rustic camp sites at the park and a stretch of water known as one of the best trout fisheries in the eastern half of the United States.
Kevin Busko calls the tunnel “a unique feature” of the Mid State Trail. The MST has blazed an alternate route over the mountain. It’s not much of a climb for hikers. By Mid State Trail standards, barely a speed bump.
“For the typical Mid State Trail hiker, it is really nothing,” says Busko, the manager of the State College region of the MST.
For Dustin Heathcoate, who brought his family to camp over Memorial Day weekend, it’s more of a hindrance. One of the things the family looks forward to when they camp at Poe Paddy is tubing the bend of Penns Creek around Paddy Mountain.
The tunnel shortcut lets you float almost two-miles with less than a half-mile walk back to where you started.
“It definitely cuts into our trip. We didn’t go tubing because we didn’t want to walk the kids back up over the mountain,” Heathcoate says.
If DCNR says it is unsafe, he won’t take his kids through, Heathcoate says.
Fawn Bennett, a 12-year old from Newville, wasn’t going to risk it either, even though the tunnel is the way she gets to the spot where she can get enough bars on her cell phone to receive a very important text message she is expecting.
A lot of other people are less concerned. A fairly steady stream of people evade the barricades and sneak through. Those with flashlights insist conditions inside look the same as they always have.
Those looks are deceiving, insists Grffith. “Whole slabs are working their way out of the ceiling. It wouldn’t just hit your head and kill you. It would smash you. If one of those slabs falls, it could bring down more. Half the ceiling could fall.”
While emergency money and a quick fix are not an option, DCNR insists making Poe Paddy Tunnel safe is a high priority. Griffith says the project is the number one item on the agency’s budgetary wish list for the upcoming fiscal year. They are already working on the environmental permits needed for work along Penns Creek, which is designated a High Quality Cold Water Fishery by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Griffith says once the money is approved, DCNR will bid the project. She offers no timetable for completion, but obviously if money is authorized in July, it won’t be this summer.
It will be an $800,000 project, Griffith estimates. The tunnel will be lined with a metal culvert pipe to shield tunnel users from falling rocks. The rest of the entrance will be sealed so nobody can get above the protective tube.
Had someone had the foresight to do the entire tunnel when the east end received similar remediation decades ago, the job would have been much easier. The east end is easily accessible. Construction equipment can drive in on the old rail bed.
Access to the west end is across Penns Creek on an old rail trestle which has been converted to a narrow footbridge.
With the east end restricted by the pipe already in place, crews will have to cross Penns Creek from the west on an old rail trestle which has been converted into a narrow foot bridge. The old railroad ties on the trestle are starting to rot. A bridge rehab will be included in the project, says Griffith.
That is not as good as having the tunnel reopened this summer, but “it will be nice if they could package it altogether,” Busko says.
It might be worth noting that although Griffith says the tunnel’s repair is her agency’s top budgetary priority, former DCNR Secretary Richard Allan told the House Appropriations Committee the top three priorities were dam projects. He never mentioned the tunnel.
There was also no mention during Allan’s testimony in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, even though the tunnel is located in the backyard of the committee’s chairman, Sen. Jake Corman (R-34).
Multiple calls to Corman’s office seeking information on the status of tunnel repair funding were not returned.
The state’s budget is due to be passed by Sunday. Until then, we may not know just how much a priority the repair of the tunnel really is.
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