The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

July 29, 2011

Shale boom compels Thruway

Business leader: Corbett must honor Rendell’s $51M vow

SHAMOKIN DAM — The economic future of Central Pennsylvania and its Northern Tier — even of New York state — lies in the hands of federal legislators and what they do with the long-discussed $600 million Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway project.

That was the message presented by Valley business leaders and politicians to special guest Robert DeSousa, state director for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s office, during a Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday morning.

“The bypass needs to be done, and it needs to be done now,” said Jeff Stroehman, of Moran Industries, Watsontown, which has been a significant player in the growth of the Marcellus shale industry.

Moran had humble beginnings, Stroehman said, but now has “grown to a situation where we can’t grow fast enough.”

The Marcellus shale industry, Stroehman said, “is the generator that will put the bricks and mortar in the ground.”

Valley businesses such as Pik Rite, a Lewisburg company that designs and manufactures commercial waste-handling equipment, and a radiator shop are providing materials being used in the Marcellus shale industry, Union County Commissioner Preston Boop said.

“Obviously, that equipment is all moving on Route 15,” Boop said.

Valley industrial parks, Boop said, are also stifled because the state Department of Transportation is telling them they cannot bring new businesses in because of the “bottleneck on Route 15,” based on a traffic impact study.

“I understand how important the Thruway is to the people who live in the Susquehanna Valley and those who travel that road regularly, as I do,” U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-10, of Cogan Station, said Thursday. “It’s also a crucial component in the Valley’s economic development. Money is tight in Washington, as everyone knows. However, I believe that taking care of our roadways and building improved thoroughfares, like this one, is an important role of the federal government. The money we invest in this project will be returned thousands of times over in economic development and industrial expansion.”

A move last year by former U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, a Dimock Democrat, put the Thruway project on a list with the Appalachian Regional Commission by transferring 12.5 miles from the Appalachian Development Highway System’s Philipsburg area corridor to the Thruway project. That designation guarantees 80 percent federal funding, but requires a 20 percent state match that can be accomplished only by removing a funding cap enforced by previous congressional action, and then an amendment of federal legislation that would allow toll credits to be used as the matching contribution for Appalachian-funded projects.

Those two issues resolved, “and this project gets built,” said Joe McGranaghan, Shamokin Dam mayor and chairman of the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Project Task Force.

Josh Funk, a representative from the office of state Sen. John Gordner, R-27, of Berwick, said $300 million to $400 million has already been allocated to the project.

“We got the design,” he said. “We need that cap lifted now. There’s broad support out there to lift the toll credit restriction, and the money is there.”

Marino has co-sponsored a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9, of Hollidaysburg, that would allow the use of highway toll revenues as credit toward the state matching share. He has also discussed the issue of lifting the project funding cap with U.S. Rep. John Mica, of Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Remember though, that, even if the language is included in the highway bill, it is still an uphill battle to get the legislation enacted into law,” said Marino’s spokeswoman, Renita Fennick.

Earlier this year, PennDOT spokesman Rick Mason said $56.5 million has been secured so far, including $9.9 million in federally earmarked funds, for design, wetlands mitigation, right-of-way acquisition and utility relocation.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell had promised $51 million for design, but “left office before giving us this money,” McGranaghan said.

So now, McGranaghan is trying to find someone at Gov. Tom Corbett’s office to tell him whether that promise will be honored by the new administration.

“I believe we’ve come so far. We can’t give up now,” said Mark Murawski, of The Route 15 Coalition, who called the bypass the “missing link” to yet unrealized economic benefits in the Valley.

“This highway system is serving a lot of traffic that’s coming in because of the Marcellus shale industry,” Murawski said. Already a nightmare to travel at times, he said, “If traffic doubles, it’s just intolerable.”

The Route 15 Coalition was formed in 1988, and has received $1 billion from PennDOT, with a goal of making Route 15 a four-lane highway from Maryland to New York state.

That goal was made without factoring in growth, such as that associated with an industry like Marcellus shale, Murawski said, but he believes that traffic will likely triple in the future as a result of it.

He told DeSousa, a former New Columbia resident, that funding must stay in place. Even people in Tioga County and New York state, he said, are “cheering for the project.”

Weis Markets uses Route 15 to supply 83 of its stores, which results in 1,100 to 1,200 truck trips each week, company spokesman Dennis Curtin said.

The efficiency of fuel mileage when traveling the congested stretch of Routes 11-15, he said, results in very inefficient fuel mileage of 5 miles per gallon. Other company trucks also use the highway to reach Weis’ major distribution warehouse in Milton, he said.

Denise Prince, of Geisinger Ventures, and president of the chamber’s board of directors, said workers in homecare services provided by Community Health Services log 1.5 million miles each year. Many times, those supplying medications to patients cannot get there in time, and in trauma situations, there have been occasions when they had to spend $3,000 to $5,000 to send a helicopter because their vehicles were stuck in Route 15 traffic.

A SEDA-Council of Governments employee said a team consisting of representatives from eight surrounding counties agree the Thruway “is the most important thing we can do.”

Also attending Thursday’s meeting were state Reps. Fred Keller, R-85, of Kreamer; Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-108, of Sunbury; and Kurt Masser, R-107, of Elysburg; Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz and business leaders.

The meeting was followed by a tour of several Valley businesses and an overview of the congested area on Routes 11-15 that would be improved by the construction of the Thruway.

— Email comments to tpursell@dailyitem.com

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