Penn State trustees shudder at $9.6M jump in cost for alternative pipeline route

mdawson@centredaily.comJuly 12, 2013 

— Penn State’s cost for the controversial natural gas pipeline project could double if an alternative route around campus is chosen over the original one through State College that caused uproar among borough residents.

Penn State would see an additional $9.6 million in costs to have Columbia Gas run the pipeline around the east and north perimeter of campus to the steam plant on West College Avenue. That would raise the cost to about $20 million, said Ford Stryker, the university’s vice president for the physical plant.

Stryker provided the information Thursday at a board of trustees committee meeting.

“It just seems very offensive to the university,” said trustee Mark Dambly, chairman of the finance, business and capital planning committee.

The board is meeting at the Fayette campus near Uniontown Thursday and Friday.

The board could vote on accepting the costs and alternative route when it meets on Friday.

The pipeline would supply natural gas to the West Campus steam plant as part of the university’s plan to transition it from coal energy. The original plan had the pipeline going from a steam plant on the eastern edge of campus through the Highlands neighborhood in State College.

The university had said there were too many utilities underground on campus to make that route viable.

But a vocal band of residents rose up against the plan to take it through their neighborhood, saying they were concerned about the safety of the pipeline and the disruption to their neighborhood.

As a result, State College Borough Council denied Columbia Gas a permit to do the work, and Columbia Gas subsequently sued the borough.

Columbia Gas and Penn State then went to work on coming up with alternative routes that wouldn’t go through the borough.

They found one that skirts the perimeter of campus in the east and north and then goes down the western part of campus to the steam plant, but, as it turns out, the cost estimate is much more expensive, Styker said.

The costs come from delays to the project, increases for equipment and materials and more.

Trustee Barbara Doran suggested talking to borough officials and trying to drive home the long-term implications of the project.

But President Rodney Erickson tried to tamp down the concerns over the high cost estimate, cautioning the trustees on the committee about tensions with the borough and its residents.

“We’re on an island,” he said, referring to how the university is within the borough, “and we have to be a good neighbor with the borough. This isn’t the last point of interaction we’ll have with the borough.”

Trustees Chairman Keith Masser said he wishes Columbia Gas would bear some of the burden, instead of the university shouldering all of it.

A spokesman for Columbia Gas, Russ Beddell, did not address Masser’s comments or the leeriness of trustees toward the high price tage. Instead, spokesman Russ Bedell said the company has “worked closely” throughout the process with Penn State and the options that have been provided are “safe and reliable” ways to convert the steam plant to natural gas.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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