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Turnpike officials to present 6 options to fix aging Somerset County tunnels

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Proposals to deal with the crush of traffic using the 73-year-old Allegheny Mountain Tunnel in Somerset County — ranging from cutting a new tunnel to diverting traffic around the mountain — will be released next week.

For almost 20 years, sometimes controversial solutions have been bandied about for the aging tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that handles 11 million vehicles a year.

Six options will be proposed on Tuesday, said Carl DeFebo, commission spokesman.

Keeping a close eye on the process will be the 500 members of the Mountain Field and Stream Club, a sportsmen's group that owns more than 1,000 acres surrounding the tunnel. For 75 years, they have hunted bear, deer, turkey and rabbit on the land, where they stock a stream with fish.

“You're talking about a really nice, remote, still-pristine area. And there aren't too many of those left,” said club President Randy Musser of Stoystown. “In addition to hunting and fishing, we get hikers and birdwatchers, too.”

Members worry that slicing a cut or bypass around the mountain could cause ecological damage. The group protested plans 12 years ago to replace the tunnel.

On the other hand, turnpike officials say the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel, which is really two sets of tunnels, no longer can accommodate the steadily increasing traffic. Three lanes of vehicles on the turnpike squeeze into two lanes inside the tunnel.

“One of the biggest issues is capacity. ... There simply are not enough lanes for the amount of traffic,” DeFebo said.

On an average day, 30,500 vehicles travel through it, “and the rate is even higher during holidays,” he said.

The first tunnel carved into the Allegheny Mountain was considered an engineering marvel when it was built from 1938 to 1940, about 13 miles east of the Somerset exit, according to turnpike archives.

The original tunnel contained both eastbound and westbound lanes. It is now the westbound tunnel.

A second tunnel for the eastbound lanes was added in 1965 between the Somerset and Bedford interchanges. At 6,070 feet, it is the longest tunnel on the turnpike.

Officials proposed alternate routes for the tunnel pass in the mid-1990s and then again in 2000.

Back then, DeFebo said, the concerns were the same:

• traffic congestion;

• the frequency of accidents;

• the declining structural condition of the tunnel;

• and the need to reroute trucks carrying hazardous materials onto local roadways off the Somerset and Bedford exits.

In 2001, plans were put on hold because of cost concerns. Estimates ranged from $91 million to $220 million.

This time around, tunrpike officials gave the executive members of the Mountain Field and Stream Club a preview of the plans.

They were not impressed, according to Musser.

“We've opposed the cut options, and there are three cut options. We don't have a preference,” Musser said.

DeFebo said any of the options will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The plans will be on display from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Quality Inn in Somerset.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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