Tom Stefano fought back tears as he stood at the top of his Baptist Road driveway in Whitehall Borough.
The gravel on the driveway is gone in some parts, shifted in others, due to water from heavy rains that swells up from underneath.
There are drainage issues along the street. A hole has opened at the edge of the road. Tom and wife Debbie have measured it and say it goes down at least six feet into the ground. Debbie Stefano has nightmares of getting trapped in the hole inside her car.
Yet, for months, nobody stepped up to fix the problem.
“I just want it fixed,” said Tom, 66. “It’s enough to cry so much it hurts. Nobody does anything.”
At the crux of the issue, Whitehall leaders say, is a 1945 state highway law giving the secretary of transportation the power to determine the type of maintenance activities PennDOT will perform on state highways located specifically in boroughs. Baptist Road is a state road.
PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan said the agency is not responsible for enclosed surface water drainage facilities located on state roads within cities, boroughs and incorporated towns. In townships, however, PennDOT can provide maintenance under four circumstances including deficiencies in structural conditions and emergency repairs.
Whitehall manager James Leventry points to what he calls “inequities in the law,” and says it is unfair townships do not have the same responsibilities as boroughs. If Whitehall residents have to maintain these systems on state roads, taxes likely will need to increase. There are an estimated six miles of state roadways in Whitehall.
“Somebody’s got to step up and take the lead on this,” Leventry said.
‘The tip of the iceberg’
Leventry says up until recently, when a drainage problem occurred on a state road within the borough, PennDOT would make the repairs.
“About two years ago, we started getting push-back,” he said.
A problem with a catch basin sinking on another portion of Baptist Road, just up the street from the Stefanos, led borough leaders to contact PennDOT.
They were told it’s the borough’s responsibility to handle this, Leventry said.
“They said, ‘Under this law, you’re responsible. We are now going to enforce this law,’” Leventry said. “Their policy pretty much changed overnight.”
PennDOT, however, does not acknowledge a shift in policy.
“The law went into effect in 1945,” Cowan said in an email. “On occasions in the past, PennDOT has partnered with municipalities to repair various safety concerns on state highways which may be the responsibility of the municipalities. Many of those concerns were emergency related. In those instances PennDOT has worked through agility agreements, traded services or billed the municipality for such work.”
PennDOT will step in to make repairs if a situation is deemed a “safety concern,” Cowan said. However, if municipalities are responsible for the repairs, they will be billed.
In 2016, after fixing the sinking catch basin on Baptist, PennDOT billed Whitehall Borough $83,000, Leventry said. Council has yet to authorize payment.
In early 2019, when the situation arose at the Stefanos, PennDOT again told the borough, “This is your problem,” Leventry said.
Borough council members in March authorized Whitehall engineers to conduct a survey of the storm sewer on Baptist Road.
The survey found “huge holes” in the pipe, Leventry said. It would cost an estimated $150,000 to fix the 250 feet of pipe in need of repairs.
But borough leaders see any move they make to repair the pipe as setting a dangerous precedence. If they do it, they will be on the hook for all others on state roads, Leventry said.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
All parties now plan to come to the table to work through the matter on May 20 at a meeting organized by state Sen. Pam Iovino (D-Mt. Lebanon), Stefano said.
In the meantime, Stefano points the finger to Pennsylvania American Water, saying this all started after a pipe broke on the street in 2016. He doesn’t believe the repair was made correctly.
Pennsylvani American spokesman Gary Lobaugh says the water company conducted televising of the line, “which indicated that the storm line deteriorated approximately 30 feet, or more, prior to where the ground was excavated by the company.”
“Pennsylvania American Water had discussions with the municipality and PennDOT, which further absolved the company for the situation,” Lobaugh said in an email.