Thursday, July 29, 2021
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Roads to the Future

Frank Zappa once said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” 

On a smaller scale, John Hook says, “You can’t be a real city unless you have limited-access four-lane highways to get you there from other cities.” Because without speedy roads, with apologies to the fictional Terence Mann, people will not come.

In the world according to me, Happy Valley is only slowly moving in the direction of being a real city. The important word there is slowly. As many of us already know, it’s often said that several times a year Beaver Stadium (which is actually in College Township) becomes the fourth largest city in the state, with its capacity of 106,572 behind only the populations of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown, and ahead of Erie

But in reality, State College Borough is only the 21st largest city (technically “incorporated place”) in the state, just behind Altoona.

So we’re not anything close to city-status right now. But I have many friends and neighbors who are worried about Happy Valley’s eventual arrival at city-status and the concomitant building that comes with it. 

To get there though, in my mind, we need the roads. When I first came to Penn State in 1977 the only roads in and out of town were the two- and three-lane variety. Since then travel from the east on state routes  64 and 26 has been replaced by I-99. Travel from the southwest on U.S. Route 220 has been replaced by I-99. Travel from the northwest on U.S. 322 has been upgraded and enhanced by merging with I-99 for a bit. And travel from the southeast on U.S. 322 just received an upgrade 10 miles from State College with the Potters Mills bypass. 

Although these are significant changes in the last 44 years, we’re still not reachable solely by limited-access four-lane highways, especially from the other major cities around the state. The shortest time and distance routes from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown and Erie all require spending a few miles on roads other than limited-access four-lane highways.

From Philadelphia, you’ll take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Harrisburg, go around Harrisburg, and then use U.S. 322 to Happy Valley, the last eight-or-so miles of which will be on a two-lane roadway. From Allentown you’ll drive I-78 to Harrisburg and then have the same experience on U.S. 322. From Erie you’ll use I-79 south to I-80 east, then exit at Woodland and spend 20 miles on two-lane roads from there through and past Philipsburg – along with a few red lights and slower-than-highway speed limits.

Even coming from major out-of-state cities such as New York City, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore requires a small digression from limited-access four-lane highways. 

From New York City you’ll use I-80 and exit to a red light and a short half-mile stretch of two-lane road to get on I-99 for the final miles into State College. As construction has begun on the replacement interchange for I-80 exit 161 so that a high-speed connector between I-80 and I-99 can be built in a few years, this will likely be the first direction from which we will move toward true city-status by my standards.

However, from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore you’ll have the same experience for the last 90 miles as those driving from Philadelphia or Allentown. Although from Washington, D.C. you might choose an extremely two-lane option of state routes 75, 522 and 26, or a more westerly option and spend just a short bit of time on local roads in Breezewood and Bedford as you enter and exit the Turnpike. 

But in the pantheon of roadways that will allow Happy Valley to become a true city by my definition, the one that will keep us out of that status for the longest time is likely to be the road to Pittsburgh — which seems odd since Happy Valley tends, at least by my observation, to be more connected to Pittsburgh than any other city, especially Philadelphia. There seem to be more Steelers, Pirates and Penguins fans than Eagles, Phillies and Flyers fans. We’re Sheetz country, not Wawa. I hear pop more than soda and yinz more than youz. And we can get to downtown Pittsburgh faster than downtown Philly even though the drive is far from a limited-access four-lane highway dream.  

Let’s examine that trip to Pittsburgh. In the year 2021 – the 21st century – the shortest time and distance driving route between Pittsburgh, the second-largest city in Pennsylvania, and State College involves almost 60 miles of regular road with driveways, intersections, businesses, homes, plenty of 45-mph speed limits, and to top it off, 31 stop lights!

That’s right. There are, by my count, 31 stop lights on the almost 60 miles of U.S. 22 between Ebensburg and Monroeville on the drive to Pittsburgh from State College. To provide a comparison for Happy Valley folks, if you drive College Avenue from the Nittany Mall on the east side of town to Pine Grove Mills on the west side of town you will go through 22 stop lights. And we all know how eternal that nine-mile trip can feel. 

Granted, the trip along this stretch of Americana from State College to Pittsburgh does provide you with some interesting sights. 

There is the Lamplighter in Delmont. a restaurant that has given home-cooked food a good name since 1955. On my first trip to Pittsburgh 45 years ago to visit Carnegie Mellon, we stopped there to eat because it was so well known. The Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Greensburg is another family-owned restaurant popular for serving homemade meals and opened a year later in 1956. Then there’s Dean’s Diner in Blairsville, which is housed in an original classic dining car and open 24/7.  

For those with a humorous penchant for old television sitcom history, when heading westbound on this trip you’ll pass the exit for Lilly and then immediately pass the exit for Munster.

Another interesting sight is the tallest smokestack in the United States, which is located at the Homer City Power Generation plant only a few miles north of Blairsville. At 1,217 feet high it’s just 33 feet shorter than the Empire State Building (not counting the spire and antenna). It’s also the third-tallest smokestack in the world and is visible from miles away as you make this drive. 

All these sights and more can make this trip through miles of red lights a bit more pleasant if you have the time to stop and take them in. Plus, it doesn’t appear that there are plans to bypass those sights any time in the foreseeable future, a la how the fictional town of Radiator Springs and the legendary Route 66 were bypassed by a highway in the Disney Pixar movie “Cars.” Meaning it could be decades, or even a century before Happy Valley will become a true city by my definition. 

So fear not, friends and neighbors. Even though high-rises seem to be sprouting everywhere in our bucolic downtown, and we may someday in the future become a true city and urban area in the center of Pennsylvania, that growth is coming slowly. You’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy the rural nature of Happy Valley.