State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Getting Out of the Route 322 Safety Hole, Just Dig Deeper

by on February 24, 2015 6:15 AM

There are over 253 million vehicles registered in The United States.

Yet, the ability of Americans to get inside gas-powered automobiles and traverse great distances on only a whim and what's in their wallet is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history – around 120 years – and only became widespread within the last 100.

However, once we got on the road, the need for more and better-quality streets quickly became apparent. As we traveled faster we wanted the ability to keep going without incessant stops and having to slow down as we passed through towns.

We are, after all, a society of people on a mission to get places, and once we get going we like to keep going. Pennsylvania played a major role in satisfying this longing of the American motoring public.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike – America's first superhighway – a road designed with one purpose: get people farther faster. You would think that being America's first superhighway would catch the attention of the masses, but the primary reason the construction of the turnpike caught the fancy of the public is it was often billed as the "weather-proof tunnel highway."

Driving from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh on the new turnpike requires traveling through the Appalachian Mountains as they cut diagonally across Pennsylvania. Luckily, in the 1880's railroad-baron William Vanderbilt and industrialist Andrew Carnegie had started building an east-west railroad across southern Pennsylvania. In 1886 they halted the project and abandoned the South Pennsylvania Railroad Company line along with nine partially-completed tunnels. It was along this line and through these tunnels that the turnpike would travel.

Tunnel construction has always made thrilling news and fascinated the masses. From the Pennsylvania Railroad's tunnels under the Hudson River into New York City in the early 1900's to the Big Dig in Boston, people love the concept of tunneling. So it was only fitting that all the planned tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike would be the news of the day back then. Getting people farther faster while going through holes in the ground – now that's exciting!

So it was with interest that a week or so ago I read on these very webpages that the Rt. 322 Potters Mills Gap Transportation Project was moving forward. After decades and decades of traversing the gap between Triester and Kohler Mountains on a twisting, turning, speed-restricted two-lane road (and a rare stop at Brownie's) we can now count down the few short years before we'll be whizzing through the gap at 55 mph on a four-lane limited access highway.

Except, that's all we will be doing. Whizzing through the gap. Once we've gone the one-point-eight mile stretch through the gap – passing a nice chunk of mountain removal on the way – and around the bend by the Centre Hall/Rt. 144 turn, we'll be back on the same slightly-less-twisting and slightly-less-turning two-lane road for those last 12 miles into Happy Valley.

Apparently the funding for the rest of the highway into State College is still "down the road" a ways.

But even if the funding shows up, there's the elephant-in-the-room issue of where to put this four-lane highway through our gorgeous valley. The "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY) problem no one has answered. Some around these parts might recall the rather vocal opposition the last time Rt. 322's projected path through the valley was discussed. We can all see how that turned out as we drive from Boalsburg to Potters Mills.

Well, fear not, politicians and NIMBY's of Happy Valley, I have a solution. One that takes us back to the great and historical roots of superhighways in America, one that is sure to cause widespread excitement in the populace, and one that eliminates all NIMBY concerns.

A tunnel.

That's right, a tunnel. A seven mile-long tunnel entering the mountains at Galbraith Gap near the Tussey Mountain ski area at an elevation of 1,360 feet, traveling in a straight line and exiting at the intersection of Rt. 322 and Stone Creek Road above the Laurel Creek Reservoir at an elevation of 1,250 feet.

As I noted, tunnels are ingrained in the history of Pennsylvania highways. Pennsylvania practically wrote the book on highway tunnels. Yet Pennsylvania doesn't have even one tunnel in the top ten longest tunnels in the country. Even worse, the longest tunnel in Pennsylvania, the Sideling Hill tunnel on the Turnpike, was abandoned in 1968. This Happy Valley tunnel would be almost three times longer than the longest car tunnel in the country! How's that for being No.1?!

The construction of the longest tunnel in the country would bring much positive media attention to the area – always a good thing. Plus there seems to be a lot of people with drilling expertise in the Central Pennsylvania area at the moment – might as well use that talent while it's here.

Also, no one needs to worry about an unsightly highway disturbing their bucolic valley or mountain views, or having to negotiate land prices and easements. The tunnel travels almost entirely under land the state already owns and once underground it stays underground.

Finally, it turns a white-knuckle, 20-minute, two-lane-road driving nightmare into a smooth, relaxing, weather-free nine minute trip.

Are you seeing the light at the end of the tunnel?


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John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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