PennDOT Focused on Opening Roads and Bridges
By Rick Hiduk
“Essentially, every road has experienced some sort of damage,” PennDOT District 3 community relations coordinator Rick Mason said of Bradford County’s highways in the wake of extensive flooding caused by the remains of Tropical Storm Lee. He further described the impairment of the county’s roadways as “extensive” and “widespread” and noted that some routes will remain closed for weeks or months as the state agency concentrates on installing temporary road surfaces and bridge spans while permanent fixes can be contracted and started. “Overall, we’re looking at millions and millions of dollars in damage to our roads and businesses,” Mason stated.
Through PennDOT, Mason issued statements almost hourly from Sept. 7 through 17, providing the most comprehensive and current reports available to media outlets and government officials throughout the area. The information proved value in keeping readers abreast of an ever-changing situation that often involved the re-closing of roadways that had been opened temporarily to allow people to access their homes and businesses in some of the areas that were hardest hit. As the immediate danger has passed, the statements are now issued once or twice daily and offer little new information.
“The vast majority of those still on the list are going to be relatively long term,” Mason explained. “These are the roads that have both longer detours and closures.” Detours have also been announced for those roads that will require the most work.
Route 187 remains one of the most fragmented highways through the county, primarily due to two bridges that are out of commission. In Orwell Township, a bridge two miles north of Rome and a quarter-mile north of Orwell Hill Road remains impassable. The detour is Orwell Hill Road to Sugar Cabin Road to LeRaysville Road. In Windham Township, a bridge on Route 187 is out between SR1049 and the New York State line.
There are two closed bridges on Battle Creek Road (SR1055) between Route 187 at Rome to Cotton Hollow Road and one closed bridge on Lake Hill Road (SR1029) between Bumpville Road (SR1046) in Rome Township to North Rome Road in Litchfield Township.
While street-level debate rages as to whether or not the Flood of 2011 was worse than the Flood of 1972, Mason suggested that the water levels and damage done varied from one community to another. The recent deluge was a unique weather occurrence that involved much more flash flooding in towns and villages where such events are uncommon. The inundation of communities along the Susquehanna River is considered comparable to that of the Agnes flood, with most towns just a few feet above or below 1972 levels. Nonetheless, the river rose and receded more quickly than it did 39 years ago.
Mason related that, in 1972, he was one of many teenagers who filled sandbags in Forty Fort in the Wyoming Valley. Based on the assessments of fellow PennDOT staff members who were in Bradford County at the time of the last great flood, Mason noted, “This is worse than ’72 in terms of how widespread the damage is.” He added that the sudden increase in the predictions of rainfall amounts and expected stream and river levels put the agency into an “all-hands-on-deck” mode. PennDOT employees and administrators, like many emergency responders, worked around the clock in the early days of the disaster and were eventually supported by PennDOT personnel brought in from districts in western Pennsylvania, where the affects of the storm were not as severe. Mason and other PennDOT administrators worked closely with Bradford County emergency management officials, including Robert Barnes and the county commissioners office.
At its peak, the flooding demanded the mobilization of 25 damage assessment crews, who fanned out to assess 1,756 state bridges and 3,013 miles of roadway in District 3’s nine counties. The figures do not reflect re-inspections of many bridges by divers or because water was still too high. In the case of the bridge at Wyalusing that carries Wyalusing-New Albany Road (SR2010) over the river, massive amounts of debris hung up on the abutments, and the bottom of the roadbed had to be cleared before the span could be adequately assessed. Area residents breathed a sigh of relief when the bridge, which was predicted to be closed for at least another week, was opened to traffic on Sept. 12.
As of Sept 17, Mason related, eight state bridges will require full replacement or major rehabilitation, while another 10 will require significant repairs before they can be opened. Emergency contracts for eight of the spans are in place, and work has already begun or will start within days.
“Our top priority is flood recovery,” said Mason. In the meantime, he urges all motorists to exercise patience and common sense when it comes to getting around the county in the coming weeks and months. PennDOT has issued several statements warning that sightseers can be fined, as can anyone who ignores “road closed” signs.
“If you have no business being in the flood-damaged areas, stay away,” he cautioned.
In neighboring Sullivan County, the most excessive damage occurred along the Loyalsock Creek from Dushore to the Lycoming County line, where a large section of Route 87 remains closed to traffic. The bridge at Lopez that was washed out two weeks prior to Lee by Hurricane Irene should be permanently replaced before the end of the year. The way around the closure involves using state routes 118, 42, 220, and 87.
“It’s a very long detour,” Mason conceded. “We understand the frustration that the people are experiencing in that area.”