Q: A few years ago, PennDOT bought and demolished the Ackermanville Store in an effort to remove a hazardous curve on Route 191. I have heard that PennDOT now intends to abandon those plans, and instead demolish a house on the downstream side of the bridge, replacing the existing bridge. How many tax dollars were wasted by eminent domain in acquiring the land where the store was, and why was the original plan scrapped?
— Matt Hahn, Nazareth, May 2013
A: It's the road project from hell, Matt — the creature that wouldn't die, right out of a 1950s sci-fi flick.
When we last took a ride on this road a year ago, we found that the plan to straighten the infamously dangerous Ackermanville Curve on Route 191 in Washington Township, south of Bangor, actually dates almost as far back as those post-war B movies in which creatures freakified by atom-bomb radiation tormented humanity. (I loved those movies as a kid, starting with the original, "Godzilla.")
The plan to demolish the building that once housed the Ackermanville Store (and before that, Speers General Store) hit the showroom floor as a 1994 model, in October of that year. That may not be a lane adjacent to the 1950s, but we're pulling in to the 20th anniversary of the concept, and motorists who regularly deal with the tight curve have earned a measure of skepticism.
Some flat tires have plagued the plan over the years, including disagreements between PennDOT and a previous design contractor over details of the work, as well as PennDOT's favorite passenger, funding shortfalls. As it turns out, it's no longer clear whether the Ackermanville Store property even would have been needed.
It was determined about five years ago that straightening the curve, which would require the slight redirection of Waltz Creek, raised considerable speed bumps in terms of environmental permitting and other difficulties. As such, it was judged too costly, and PennDOT decided to substitute a model with a lower sticker price: The new bridge will be wider, which in itself might soften the sharpness of the curve a trace, but the course of the road itself will not change, allowing the creek to retain its natural path.
"Mostly, the curve will still be there," PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said.
One house near the sharpest point of the curve was in the way of the new design, and that was demolished. But with those issues resolved, all opposing traffic finally had been steered in the proper direction by last May, at which time Young said the construction contract for the new bridge had been signed. Work was expected to proceed the following month.
A full construction season has passed since then; we should be halfway through the two-year project. Instead, a recent PennDOT news release announced that work would start Tuesday.
I wondered if we should believe them, or (maintaining the movie theme) whether this would morph into a scene from "Groundhog Day"? But it's true: Workers from general contractor Bi-State Construction of Easton already were underway with preliminary work when I visited Friday. Bi-State also will replace the small bridge (actually a concrete "box culvert" for water from a Waltz tributary to pass through) about a quarter-mile to the east (northbound) on 191, also known as Washington Boulevard in that area.
OK, but why was construction postponed last June?
"The main reason was, we had originally proposed closing and detouring [the bridge], and we got requests from the local residents, businesses, officials, you name it," asking for an alternate plan that would allow the road to remain open during construction, Young said.
With daily traffic volume at the bridge at an average of 5,528 vehicles, "we agreed to do that," he said, but that decision popped the clutch on another redesign, as the bridge essentially will be built one half at a time, with one narrow lane of traffic being maintained on the "inactive" half, he said. Traffic will flow in only one direction at a time, controlled by temporary signals already on site, working Friday in "flash" mode with flaggers directing traffic. The temporary signals, which boast vehicle detection by video cameras, eventually will be switched to operational mode.
Larger trucks still will have to detour the site, using Routes 33 and 512, mostly because of the narrow lanes during construction. The new bridge that's expected to open in late 2015 will be a bit more than 43 feet wide, or 10 feet wider than the existing span, which dates to 1932.
Bi-State President Greg DeNardo said last week that temporary paving and other preliminary work was underway at the site. Regarding last year's postponement, he said township officials' concern over the planned closure of the road centered on the issue of emergency-vehicle access and response times — certainly a legitimate issue in this rural village a mile and a half south of Bangor.
The construction contract is pegged at $1.58 million, but that will be raised because of last year's redesign, Young and DeNardo agreed. The amount has yet to be determined.
"I don't think that's all been finalized," Young said.
One other update while we're taking this little motor tour of the Slate Belt.
Nick Davanzo of Bangor emailed in January 2013, wondering about the status of the replacement of the Bangor Viaduct on Messinger Street in the borough, also known as the Messinger Street Bridge. The structure just east of First Street takes Messinger across the Martins Creek and a Norfolk Southern rail line.
PennDOT officials at that time were hoping to turn the key on that $8.5 million project by spring or summer of this year, but that won't be happening.
"The current 'let' date is November," Young said, referring to "letting" the construction contract — seeking bids for the work from contractors. If all goes well, work could begin in spring 2015.
But as always, "Whatever dates we give you during design are best estimates," Young said. "Every project is unique," and inclement weather, unexpected findings during excavation, permitting delays and other potholes can set any project back, he said.
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