The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

July 7, 2013

A bypass too far

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— Let’s face it. Veterans Memorial Bridge is designed to kill people on both ends and in the middle and the fact that so few die represents the triumph of human courtesy, caution and quickness over civil engineering.

It has feeder ramps and exit ramps coming and leaving in polar opposites, two waves of opposing traffic on four lanes where, for 3,000 feet of pavement and desperation, drivers crisscross out of necessity, opportunity and adventure as they aim for their destination or seek the advantage of a few car lengths.

Those landing on the western bank have a choice of another crisscross going north or a squeeze into what is regularly bumper-to-bumper traffic headed south.

Close to 10 million vehicles cross the Susquehanna River on that bridge every year, mainly during a few hours in the morning and one hour in the evening, condensing the probabilities that at least one fellow traveler will be confused, inattentive, inebriated, inexperienced or expressing road rage with a truck. Texting has not improved matters.

PennDOT is busily borrowing two feet of space from existing lanes to create a median, which should be an immense improvement.

Public safety might be further enhanced by some cleverly timed technology that automates, triggers and generates photographic evidence of speeding violations. That would eliminate some derring-do from the crossing, to everybody’s benefit.

Elsewhere in the Valley, this summer seems like one giant detour as paving and bridge work has sealed off Mifflinburg, Selinsgrove, Danville, Sunbury, Beavertown, McClure and Kratzerville. Well, not entirely. As they said even before the bridge repair, “uphill and downhill, that’s the way to Kratzerville.”

This attention or disruption is temporary. Studies show 98.7 percent of us are coping with it just fine, substituting caution, courtesy and safety for convenience, allowing other drivers into the lane every other car, waiting our turn at busy intersections and waving a thank you to all who yield space and time as we enter the flow.

(I just lied. There are no studies. It sounds more authoritative to write that “studies show” than to offer mere personal observation. If your personal observations reach a different conclusion, you may be right.)

Actual studies show that 50 percent of our bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete in Pennsylvania and that 44 percent of our roads need work — basically twice the level of deterioration drivers encounter on Ohio and Maryland bridges and Ohio roads. Maryland keeps its roads equally poor or mediocre, so Ocean City vacationers from Pennsylvania won’t notice the difference.

Actual statistics also show that the Valley receives a better level of bridge repair than many regions of the state. Maybe we have shorter bridges, more of them or just more dedicated PennDOT people. In any case, we are luckier in that regard.

There is one highly publicized exception. As even casual readers of the newspaper know, the Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway has been a project for 40 years — supported by commerce, initiated by previous administrations and partly baked in terms of planning, conceptual design and property acquisition.

This was our spring of greater optimism. The stars were aligned. Our governor (studies show) found his most loyal supporters in Central Pennsylvania. Transportation was his signature issue. He proposed a “decade of investment.” The Thruway was ripe.

Legislation was drafted, with the Thruway as a centerpiece. Nearly $558 million was written into a measure that would fund the 12.5 miles over the next 10 years. That sped through committee and emerged full throated from the state Senate with whelming support, only to run into roadblocks in the state House.

It comes down to this. There are vast amounts of work to be done throughout the state on existing road and bridge repairs. There is also little money available to do it.

A plan that relied upon every Pennsylvanian accepting 25-28 cents more a gallon in gasoline prices to generate revenue has to spread the return on investment across the commonwealth. The Thruway was too big a chunk — some $558 million in a $1.8 billion plan.

We may not like that. But if we are fair-minded, we can see it — and we could have seen it coming.