The Central Susquehanna Valley Transportation Project Finally Moves Forward
Many needed and useful projects languish on drawing boards for years waiting for funding. The Central Susquehanna Valley Transportation (CSVT) Project, located in North Central Pennsylvania, has been on the drawing board since the 1960's. The project has been started and stopped numerous times since then. However, Act 89 changed that, and Pennsylvania's largest capacity-adding project is moving forward.
Funding Available Due to Act 89
In the fall of 2013, the Pennsylvania state government created its most comprehensive piece of state transportation legislation in decades. Known as Act 89, the bipartisan legislation dedicated an additional $2.4 billion towards transportation over a 5-year period. To finance the additional transportation funding, Act 89 eliminated the 12 cents per gallon tax and folded it into the percentage wholesale tax. The equivalent right now is roughly 58 cents per gallon.
Sandra Tosca is the District Executive for Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 3, which covers nine counties, 4,500 road miles, and over 2,900 bridges in North Central Pennsylvania. Tosca's responsibilities include overseeing budget, construction and design and maintenance of all transportation projects in her district. "Act 89 eliminated the $0.12 per gallon state retail gas and diesel tax, and the cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax (OCFT), a wholesale tax on gasoline and diesel distributors," says Tosca.
The federal fuel tax is like the previous bill in Pennsylvania and has not increased in decades. This has left funding levels stagnant at the federal level and infrastructure is suffering. Tosca believes that there needs to be a review of how funds are secured at the federal level. She notes that alternate fuels for vehicles, including electric and natural gas are not being taxed and fuel efficiency has changed dramatically since the federal tax structure went into place.
Tosca is emphatic that without Act 89, the CSVT project would not have gone forward. There is a federal law that requires dedicated funding be in place before a project can proceed (this is done to prevent fiascos like the famed bridge to nowhere project in Alaska). The available funds for the CSVT project stood at $235 million, $435 million short of the $670 million needed. While the project is divided into two sections, a northern and southern part, it needed to be done entirely to meet all the needs of the project.
Scope of the Project
Due to the size of the CSVT project, it has been broken into seven contracts. The first contract was for a river bridge, work on which began January of 2016. The river bridge will be 4,545-feet-long and nearly 200-feet-high. It will span a section of the Susquehanna River. The bridge is expected to be completed by 2020. The entire project entails providing a 13-mile limited access highway connecting PA 147 in Northumberland County just south of the PA 45 Interchange, to U.S. 11/15 in Snyder County just north of the Borough of Selinsgrove. The northern section of the project, which begins near Winfield to just south of the PA 45 Interchange, will also include nine highway bridges and cover 5 million cubic yards of earthwork.
The southern section of the project, which is from Winfield to U.S. 11/15, is proving more complicated. Since the CSVT project had been stopped and started previously, there had already been an environmental impact study done. In 2003, the project received environmental clearance. The area is home to a former coal-fired power plant and fly ash basins. Fly ash, which is a by-product of burning coal, was collected in basins and was covered over. Preliminary engineering studies and information indicated the fly ash would drain over time and that construction could occur over the ash basins.
Once final design started in 2015, geotechnical studies found that the ash from within 10 feet of the surface to the bottom of the basins has the consistency of a milkshake or toothpaste making the ash unable to support the weight of highway and incurring risk of the highway settling and deforming. Studies were done to see if the basins could be strengthened. If construction was done, the state would assume liability for the basins and their dams. So, changes were made to the plans. Tosca says, "We had to alter the route around the fly ash basins."
Several public meetings have been held to formulate and review alternatives to avoid an alignment through the basins. A public hearing for the southern section will occur in the spring to finalize the recommended alternative. Once environmental clearance is obtained, a more definitive schedule can be laid out and a firm target date for completion can be made. Tosca hopes the project will be completed as close to 2024 as possible.
Benefits of the Project
Upon completion, the CSVT project will benefit local drivers as well as those passing through the area, including a highly developed commercial strip that draws significant local traffic. In addition, there's a large volume of through traffic, which includes a considerable number of trucks. People want to get through the area while local traffic is looking to get to businesses. Pipeline construction related to the Marcellus Shale and conversion of the coal-fired electric plant to natural gas is bringing more local traffic and influencing population growth.
According to Tosca, the existing corridor has a high crash rate due to the conflicting movements. Tosca says of the CSVT project, "The new four lane facility has interchanges in a number of areas which will allow commuters who simply want to go through to not have to deal with local traffic. It will allow for separation of traffic, reduce congestion, and improve safety."
While the CSVT project is the major transportation project going on in District 3 due to Act 89, it is not the only one. Tosca notes that her district includes an old network, much of which was built in the 1920's, and roads must be reconstructed and maintained to deal with the transportation needs of the day. "We needed to do some improvements of the existing area and we advanced some smaller projects." says Tosca. She poses the question, "How can you justify building new projects without maintaining your existing infrastructure?"
With Act 89, Pennsylvania has taken a bold step in upgrading its aging infrastructure. The creative way to raise funds may be a model that can be utilized by the Federal government to fund infrastructure improvements across the nation. For now, the residents and those who pass through North Central Pennsylvania will benefit in regards to safety and speed from the 13-mile highway due to Act 89.