Two Sides of the Road
by Fred D. Baldwin
No one could have asked for a better morning for a highway ribbon-cutting ceremony—a bright blue sky with just enough September nip in the air to explain why some maples had already turned red. Yet the speeches at the opening of an upgraded segment of U.S. Route 15 in northern Pennsylvania's Tioga County were unexpectedly muted, a recognition that the victory being celebrated had not been won without casualties.
Although this road is going to be a wonderful thing for our economy," said Bradley L. Mallory, state transportation secretary, "the bottom line is that more of us will make it home safely." Later, he was even blunter: "Too many people that you and I know personally have died." Jobs and safety... safety and jobs. The two themes intertwine in conversation after conversation with officials, business owners, and others along Route 15, which runs north and south near the middle of the state and has long carried more traffic than it was built to handle.
The newly improved 3.4-mile segment of Route 15 is built to interstate standards and became the first four-lane highway in Tioga County's history. It is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS), a system designed to provide transportation corridors throughout the Appalachian Region. Almost all of Route 15 north of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is designated as ADHS Corridor U. (Corridor U, at a point just south of the New York–Pennsylvania state line, currently branches off from Route 15 in an easterly direction to connect to Elmira, New York; Route 15 continues almost due north to connect to Corning.) Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge has pledged that upgrades along all of Route 15 from Williamsport to the New York border will be either complete or under construction by the year 2002.
That progress is a triumph for a pair of sister organizations that have led a long fight for better highways across the Appalachian counties of central and northern Pennsylvania. The elder of the two is the Appalachian Thruway Association (ATA), originally formed in 1963 to promote development of U.S. 220, which includes ADHS Corridor O and part of Corridor P. Since 1988 the ATA has cooperated with its younger sister, the Route 15 Coalition, in promoting a modernized highway.
Taking a broad perspective, you can visualize the two groups' areas of primary interest as a huge inverted "Y," beginning with Route 15 at the New York state border near Corning and forking some 70 miles south at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. At that point a long western leg of the inverted "Y" branches off to the southwest and runs through State College and Altoona to Cumberland, Maryland. Route 15 continues more or less due south through Harrisburg to the Maryland border.
Because the ATA and the Route 15 Coalition share an identical concern for developing Route 15 north of Williamsport, their alliance there is natural. But Oliver Bartlett, president of the ATA, and Mark Murawski, president of the Route 15 Coalition, say that the two grassroots organizations (supported by membership contributions from businesses and others) are interested in each other's total success, and the evidence supports them. The reason extends beyond economics to a mutual appreciation of the safety concerns involved. Increased safety, although recognized as a benefit of improved highways, was nevertheless not an explicit element in the original rationale for the ADHS. That system's goal was to open up isolated areas "instead of upgrading or expanding the most heavily traveled routes." Because isolated areas tend to have low traffic volumes and terrain that entails high construction costs, it's often been difficult to get Appalachian highways to the top of state priority lists, even with up to 80 percent in matching funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission. (See "Appalachian Highways: Almost Home but a Long Way to Go," in the May-August 1996 issue of Appalachia.)
In Pennsylvania, long-term highway priorities are set by the State Transportation Commission, a body composed of representatives from both the legislative and executive branches of government. Ironically, Route 15 has had little difficulty in maintaining a spot high on Pennsylvania need lists, but actual funds have been slow to materialize. Route 15 provides the principal highway link between western New York and the mid-Atlantic states, and its traffic volume is high. To the extent that counties and communities along the Route 15 corridor are isolated, it is only because the unimproved stretches of highway make driving slower and more dangerous. Geographically, they're close to the center of major economic activity.
A Deadly Combination
During recent decades, the loss of rail lines has put a heavier burden on central Pennsylvania's highways. In 1996 the Route 15 Coalition found that the percentage of commercial truck traffic to total traffic on Route 15 was about 32 percent—approximately two and a half times that of the average highway. Mixing that volume of truck traffic with local traffic makes a deadly combination, says Murawski, an employee of the Lycoming County Planning Commission.
"This highway is now used like an interstate," he told the transportation commission in 1996, "yet the finished four lanes at either end funnel into dangerous stretches of two-lane sections, with commercial zones, multiple entry points, and cross traffic. Over the past five years alone, more than 2,400 accidents claiming 50 lives occurred on Route 15 between Harrisburg and the New York state line—an average of 70 accidents and one fatality each and every month."
"Route 15 had one of the worst accident histories of any highway in the state," agrees Bartlett, a division chief in the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. "And we realized we weren't going anywhere economically until that changed. We put together all these people who had stakeholder interests, and then vigorously presented our case." Because almost everyone in the area has a personal memory of at least one of those fatalities, even conversations with businesspeople that open on economic issues sooner or later turn to safety. "When we visit our major customers or potential customers now, there's always concern with just-in-time delivery," begins Karen Hammer, president of Keystone North, Inc., a small manufacturer of metal products with about 25 employees at each of two Tioga County locations. "No one wants to inventory, so they're looking for getting their product as quickly as possible. It's important for us to say, 'We can deliver tomorrow.' We use Route 15 every single day to get our products out. [Improving it] would encourage expansion, that's for sure. There are a lot of other factors, of course, but we could use it as a selling point that we have a good highway system." Then, mentioning her employees' use of the highway for commuting, she continues unasked: "Personally, my biggest concern is safety. This has nothing to do with business. I know people who've been killed on the highway—mostly people from outside the area who aren't familiar with three-lane to two-lane to four-lane, and all the changes."
John Ruvolo, president and CEO of Tyoga Container Company, Inc., which makes corrugated cardboard packaging and employs about 40 people, strikes the same notes. "It's going to open up our territory," Ruvolo says. "We normally ship what we can do in a day with our trucks. But the big thing is the safety factor. A few years ago someone ran into one of our trucks." He adds that present and planned improvements to Route 15 were a definite factor in two key company decisions: first, to remain in the area at all, and second, to expand production capacity (in 1998) by about 75 percent.
The Route 15 Coalition has made safety a key theme in its campaign to have the road moved up on the priority list of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). Murawski recalls how a former Lycoming County commissioner, Dolly Wilt, who died in 1995, had been so concerned about a particularly dangerous stretch of highway that she sent former Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey a rose every day during much of October 1986 to remind him of a promise to use state funds to match ARC funds for improvements. Her appeal was successful, and that segment of highway, now widened and improved, bears her name.
In 1987, a year after Wilt's rose-a-day reminders, approximately 200 vehicles met a few miles north of Williamsport. In a long line that included fire trucks, police cars, rescue vehicles, and ambulances, they formed a slow caravan that crept as if in a funeral procession along Route 15 into the city.
"We wanted to show that we had wide support," Murawski says. "We tried to use emergency vehicles because so many of them had responded to grisly accidents." "They touched a nerve in that community," recalls Ken Quigley, president of Morehouse Communications, a Harrisburg public relations firm that has helped both the ATA and the Route 15 Coalition make their case. (Bryan Quigley, a member of the firm, serves as executive director of the ATA.) "There were people coming out with signs reading, 'My [child] was killed here.' It was so touching. Within two years we cut the ribbon on a stretch that eliminated the worst death trap."
Key Vote Shows Support
Evidence of areawide support for highway improvements took a different form this spring with a key vote in the Pennsylvania legislature on a bill to raise the state gasoline tax by 3.5 cents per gallon and to increase vehicle registration fees by 50 percent. The revenue would help to increase highway maintenance and construction by approximately $400 million annually and was seen as critical to maintaining momentum on Route 15 improvements.
Tax increases are never popular, and the vote on this package was close in the House (107-88) and even closer in the Senate (26-23). But there was nothing close about the way legislators along the Route 15 corridor voted. Fifteen of the 18 voted for the tax increase. Governor Ridge signed the bill into law on April 17, and, two weeks later, Route 15 projects were given an increase in money and priority. Route 15 will be a four-lane highway from New York to Maryland. Almost the entire southern Pennsylvania portion (outside the Appalachian Region) is complete, except for a few two-lane segments in the Harrisburg area. From an economic perspective, the ATA and the Route 15 Coalition are as eager to see those bottlenecks eliminated as they are to see improvements made closer to home. The ATA, in fact, has eight county chapters in three states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York. Ultimately, the two organizations hope to secure the designation of Route 15 north of Williamsport as Interstate 99, a feasible goal since the highway is being built to interstate specifications and will connect to other interstates. (Some sections of U.S. 220 near Altoona have already been so designated.)
"You have to have a long-term vision and a long-term commitment," says Bryan Quigley, summing up the record of the ATA and the Route 15 Coalition. "It's a twofold approach. You keep your communities informed of the progress, and you keep your legislators informed of the need. We've been methodical and consistent. We've attended every State Transportation Commission hearing." There's no question that the ATA and Route 15 Coalition members have maintained a long perspective. ATA treasurer Chester P. Bailey, a retired Mansfield, Pennsylvania, newspaper editor, has been active in local coalitions to improve the highway since 1962. He's even authored a paper that traces Route 15 as a road begun in 1792 following trails previously used by Native Americans.
Bailey notes dryly that in 1812 the state legislature rejected petitions for $10,000 for road improvement.
The costs of building highways has gone up during the two centuries since that time. Since the late 1980s, says Murawski, project costs have approached half a billion dollars, and nearly that amount will be needed to complete the work. Yet the prospects of being able to do that are excellent, and the payback looks equally good. A 1989 study concluded that each $100 million then invested in highways in Pennsylvania created over 2,700 jobs each year and annually generated over $36 million in tax revenues.
The prospect of those kinds of benefits materializing along the northern stretches of Route 15 is cause for celebration in Tioga and Lycoming Counties, as well as in other Appalachian counties to the west and south along U.S. 220. But they're only one part of the larger concern for regional well-being that accounts for both the slightly somber tone of that September ribbon-cutting ceremony and the long, determined effort that preceded it.
Secretary Mallory summed up like this: "The economic benefits will materialize over the next few years, but the safety benefits start this afternoon."
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.