Pennsylvania DOT Moves Efficiently Through Limited Access Area on Potters Mills Gap Project
For all who have driven on the winding, mountainous roads of central Pennsylvania, there are sections of road that hold our undivided attention. This certainly can be said for a current Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) project area just east and south of State College.
The Potters Mills Gap (PMG) Transportation Project is designed to improve safety, reduce congestion and alleviate access concerns along a demanding section of Route 322 from the Centre County/Mifflin County line to west of the Route 322/Route 144 intersection at Potters Mills. According to Marla Fannin, PennDOT Community Relations Coordinator for Engineering District 2-0, the project was divided into three sections for construction purposes:
· Section B04 (the Bridge over SR 322 near Sand Mountain Road) completed on September 23, 2015.
· Section B05 (constructs the new interchange at Sand Mountain Road Interchange at Seven Mountains) began construction in August 2016.
· Section B06 will re-construct U.S. 322 from Potters Mills to Sand Mountain Road (western interchange) currently in final design phase, scheduled for a Fall 2017 construction start.
Three major concerns are addressed by this project, where safety and access are a challenge: safety interests in the project area between Potters Mills and Sand Mountain Road; congestion in the area between Potters Mills and Sand Mountain Road; and, access issues at project area intersections and adjacent properties.
A full interchange at Sand Mountain Road eliminates the existing at-grade intersection of Sand Mountain Road and Route 322. Four new at-grade ramps will be constructed in a tight diamond configuration adjacent to existing Route 322. This interchange incorporates a connection with Sandcrest Road that was developed with public input and support, with considerations for safety, engineering and environmental impact. The bridge for the interchange was completed on September 23, 2015. The current Sandcrest Road and rehabilitated Route 2015 reconstruction will connect the ramp terminals at Sand Mountain Road with the overhead bridge constructed in Section B04.
According to PennDOT Engineering District 2-0 Project Manager Craig Sattesahn, "In extending four lanes into Potters Mills Gap along Potters Run, our biggest challenge is trying to fit this highway into a small footprint. We are using soil nail slopes to help minimize the cut lines in those areas." Soil nail slopes are steel rods that stabilize the supporting ground. But, he said, "We have to work into the mountain in order to complete the project. We proposed a 0.75-foot horizontal cutaway per each foot of elevation. This is a very steep slope and all in rock. Once we finally get to the soil, we will continue the 0.75:1 slope in the soil using the soil nail slopes to minimize the forest impacts."
Rob Weed, Environmental Manager for PennDOT District 2, added, "The Potters Mills Gap Project was fast tracked under Act 89 with the previous PennDOT administration. We were tasked to move this along at a quick pace," he noted. Act 89 is actually PA House Bill 1060. The act was signed into law on November 25, 2013, creating Pennsylvania's most comprehensive state transportation legislation in decades. This legislation invests an additional $2.3 to $2.4 billion into transportation by the fifth year of the plan. Partial funding for the new transportation package comes from the elimination of the flat 12-cent gas tax and modernizing an outdated transportation financing structure through uncapping the wholesale, Oil Company Franchise Tax. The act also increased resources for transit and created a dedicated Multimodal Fund for non-highway modes' capital needs.
When the significance of impact for a transportation project proposal is uncertain, an environmental assessment, or EA, is prepared to assist in making this determination. The end goal is a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI, which is issued during the EA process once an environmental analysis and interagency review find a project to have no significant impacts on the affected environment. In essence, the FONSI document is the EA modified to reflect all applicable comments and responses, and must include the project sponsor's recommendation or a selected alternative. While no formal public circulation of the FONSI is required, a rigorous public involvement process, including frequent Federal and State Regulatory and Resource Agency review and comment is undertaken, and all must be notified of the availability of the FONSI. In addition, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recommends that the public be notified through postings in local newspapers.
"In order to receive the FONSI for this project," Weed said, "we did innovative things such as collaborating with other agencies, preparing concise documents and working at a quick pace in order to expedite." In doing so, they received it in 16 months. "Each project is unique depending on the challenges involved but most take at least two years or longer under a normal process," he noted. The PMG project received the 2015 FHWA "Environmental Excellence" award for effectively fulfilling requirements in an expedited timeline.
A key environmental effort for this project includes a contribution to the Indiana Bat Conservation Fund. "We will pay for mitigation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the project's impact to the forest habitats we are affecting," Weed said. These funds directly help support research into White Nose Syndrome and other issues that affect these tiny bats. The bats are an endangered species throughout the Midwest, the Ozarks, and the Appalachian Mountains, as well as some parts of the Northeast.
The PMG Transportation Project also lies within a portion of the Penn and Brush Valley Rural Historic District. It was determined the project also would have an impact on this area so it, too, required mitigation. "Since a section of the project runs through a historic district, we are required to apply a special stain to the retaining walls and the concrete on the bridge structure at the Western interchange as a form of mitigation for the Adverse Effects upon the Historic District," shared Weed.
The final project phase, Section B06, will provide two lanes in each direction, east bound and west bound and will be designated as SR 322. Most of the existing two-lane SR 322 in the "Gap Area" will be renamed SR 2015, to become a local road running adjacent to the limited access highway from Potters Mills to Sand Mountain Road. This will tie in the interchanges and act as a detour route as necessary for accidents, weather incidents, etc. "PMG is a long-term project," shared Sattesahn, "with the final contract commencing in Fall 2017 and work continuing until 2020. We look forward to continuing our work with our project partners to provide better and safer conditions for travelers in the Potters Mills Gap area."