PennDOT, Huston Township deal could avoid major traffic shift in Julian

Anxious Julian residents can breathe easier: Their town looks like it will be spared major changes.

Call it the road probably not taken.

Under the state Department of Transportation’s proposal, the village would have lost an aging and deficient bridge at its current entrance from old U.S. Route 220.

In place of the bridge, PennDOT envisioned building a new entrance from the highway. The route would have cut through a homeowner’s lot, risen to cross railroad tracks and then descended into town on a limited access ramp.

Now, after local opposition, the project appears headed in another direction.

Township supervisors are leaning toward accepting a PennDOT offer of a twin cell box culvert bridge to replace the existing single-span structure across Laurel Run. The township would then own the bridge, taking over its maintenance from the state.

In response to public opinion this fall, PennDOT revised its designs and returned to the township with three options: an entrance with a turning lane on the highway, a replacement single-span bridge and the box culvert bridge.

The tweaked entrance plan also would have kept the current bridge but allowed only pedestrians and bicycles to cross, allaying a concern about cutting off some residents from the rest of the town.

But at their regular meeting Monday, township supervisors said they heard overwhelming approval for the box culvert idea.

“Option three was the one everyone seemed to favor, the box culvert, and I think it’s probably the way we’re going to go,” Board of Supervisors Chairman James Cowan said.

Cowan said he likes the box culvert design — basically linked cells resting on a central piling — because it’s durable and wouldn’t require maintenance for decades.

In addition, he said, the adjacent railroad bridge upstream is a similar type of box culvert, so if PennDOT aligns both central pilings, the stream’s flow shouldn’t change.

“I think it’s probably the best way to go and probably the best for the township,” Cowan said.

Supervisors did not take a vote on the box culvert bridge Monday. Cowan said the board needs to notify PennDOT of its preference and clarify a few details before voting.

Though the box culvert bridge isn’t official yet, Carol Alexander said she’s relieved.

She and her husband, Terry, would have seen the new entrance slice through their property, taking out a half-acre and isolating part of their lot.

But they were more upset by the prospect of school buses waiting on a constantly busy highway to turn left into Julian. They worried about speeding trucks slamming into stationary buses from behind.

The addition of a turning lane, Carol Alexander said, wasn’t enough to persuade her the entrance would be safe. She’s happy with the township’s apparent choice.

“It’s what the whole town wanted, to have the bridge fixed,” she said. “And it’s the most economical thing also.”

Some residents, such as Roy and Opal Hanscom, worried the solid ramp and interchange in town would cause flooding from runoff. The Hanscoms’ house would have stood in the shadow of the proposed ramp.

Carol Alexander said a few weeks of detours while PennDOT installs the box culvert bridge would be a relatively small price to pay.

“It will not cut our town in two, and not destroy Roy and Opal’s house,” she said. “It’s just the best thing all around.”

Karen Michael, assistant district executive for design for PennDOT’s District 2, said any box culvert bridge project would include a temporary town entrance for emergency vehicles and local residents.

If the project goes forward, she said, construction wouldn’t start until 2015 at least.

Michael said PennDOT made the project changes because it wanted to work with Julian residents and township supervisors to find a “mutually acceptable” compromise.

“What we did was listen to their input,” she said.

Originally, PennDOT intended the new entrance to be a detour while the inadequate Laurel Run bridge was repaired or replaced. But this summer, the agency decided that it would make more sense to build a permanent connector road from the highway, and it began discussions with the township.

Robert Jaconski, a PennDOT design project manager, said the agency still thinks the modified entrance and ramp design presents the best and safest option for traffic.

But, he said, the agency “looks at the whole picture,” and if Julian and the township prefer the box culvert bridge, then they’ll get it.

“We’ll accept whatever they want,” he said.

He said a box culvert bridge, including the temporary detour, should cost about $600,000 — about $300,000 less than a replacement single-span bridge.

Earlier this fall, PennDOT estimated the entrance and ramp design would cost about $700,000.

Jaconski said the township could expect to pay about $150 annually for inspections of any bridge, but box culvert kinds typically have lower maintenance costs than traditional spans. Box culvert construction also would mean detours of weeks rather than months, he said.

If the township chooses a box culvert bridge, he said, PennDOT would need to do its standard engineering study first to ensure the site is suitable.

“But preliminary indications are that this box culvert option will work,” he said.

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, talked to PennDOT on behalf of the Julian community and helped broker discussions between the two sides. He said PennDOT handled the controversy well.

“When they came up with something that wasn’t acceptable to the supervisors and the residents, they went back to the drawing board and looked deeper,” Conklin said. “My hat’s off to them.”

Throughout the summer and fall, Conklin said, agency officials and local residents behaved cordially to each other as they sought an answer.

“It all worked out very well,” he said. “It’s very nice to see when a community and the state government all work together to make sure the project is in the best interests of everybody involved.”

Also praising PennDOT’s responsiveness, Cowan said many parties, including the Centre County Planning and Community Development Office, helped find a solution.

“It really showed that Huston Township, and certainly the village of Julian, had some people on their side,” Cowan said. “It was nice to see people come together, and it was nice that PennDOT listened.”