Dangerous roads wait, and wait — and wait — for a fix

| 04 Jun 2015 | 03:59

By Frances Ruth Harris
— Why don't they just pave Sawkill Road already?

Residents Helga Becking, Gail Darcy, and Joyce VanNest were happy to hear that Sawkill was going to get the resurfacing it so desperately needs. But they believe resources have since been diverted to Wilson or some other road. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says it's doing the best it can with limited resources, lurching from one crisis to another. Sawkill Road won't even be considered for bidding until 2016.

Sawkill Road is falling apart. In many places, the center is as much as 20 inches higher than the edges. The women say they can't avoid the gullies on either side of the sloping road, especially when it's covered with ice and snow. A vehicle could easily slip off into the road below, or tumble into a gully, or both, they say.

Drivers on the winding road stick to the middle to avoid the scary drop-offs. A sign that signals the 25 mph speed limit for trucks was evidently struck and lay on the ground, near a junked rear car door and many, many bottles, cans and other trash.

A group might decide to join the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's adopt a road program, and volunteer to clean up the road. But is it really safe to walk along the road picking up trash and litter?

Becking, Darcy, and VanNest say their friends also complain about Sawkill, which is a vital connecting road through the area. But it's dangerous even in the best circumstances. In many areas the sight distances are very limited. When school buses come down Sawkill, the women say, they look away, dreading they'll be witness an accident.

Occasionally they notice a patch or two and other evidence of minimal maintenance. But near every patch, several more potholes lie in wait. Buckled, split, and eroding, the road seems to lack a foundation, as if it never had a base. Sawkill was originally a wagon dirt road that later became a tar and chip road before it was paved with asphalt. But it's reverting back to tar and chip in some areas. In others, it just disappears into the dirt.

Darcy wants the temporary fixes to end.

Delaware Drive is falling into the river

Delaware Drive, SR1017, in Matamoras is falling into the Delaware River. Blinking warning signs, yellow pavement markers, cones, and tape alert drivers to an exposed guard rail, which wouldn't stop an out-of-control vehicle from falling into the drink.

Trees have been removed to make the river visible, but their roots no longer retain the soil. Delaware Drive is now one-lane in this dangerous area. Delaware Drive resident Jim Osczepinski says it's been this way for at least a month, with the hazard first noticed last fall. The crew that put up the signs told him the road was on a project list to be fixed sometime this summer. One of the signs says, "Road Work Ahead."

But the neighbors say no workers ever come.

Delaware Drive is curvy, and visibility near the site is limited. In about 15 minutes, five huge trucks eased themselves through the one-lane section. Osczepinski says he sees septic trucks travel the road.

He said his neighbors thought last fall it would just drop into the river.

Delaware Drive resident Joe Martucci agrees.

"The river is coming under the road and eroding it," he said. He sees this happening when he rafts the river with his family.

He said surveyors worked at residential properties across from where the road is falling into the river. This makes sense, he said, because you can't fix a road so close to the river. Soon, the land will run out, he said. He believes the road will have to move closer to the houses.

Delaware Drive was paved five or six years ago, but the mighty river currents are undermining the work.

"These are temporary fixes," said Martucci, echoing the women on Sawkill road. "They need to fix the problem."

Emergencies divert limited cash

Ken Thiele, PennDOT's maintenance manager for Pike County, has much experience with road triage. He's watched Pike's population grow over the years while his maintenance staff dwindled. He currently manages 30 workers.

He said Act 89, also known as the Transportation Bill, offers hope. It was signed in 2013 by Governor Tom Corbett to fund roads, bridges, and public transpportation. By 2018 Pennsylvania will have an additional $2.3 billion per year, making it the biggest increase in transportation infrastructure funding in decades.

Still, the state has let so much go for so long, it will take time to catch up. In fact, a 2013 study found that Pennsylvania’s roads are so dangerous, the rate of fatalities on rural, non-Interstate routes is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than on all other roads and highways in the state combined. One-third of all fatal and serious traffic crashes can be attributed to bad roads, the study found.

That year, lower weight restrictions were posted at four bridges in Pike County both to slow their rate of decay and to safeguard the public. A local fire department had to get a waiver to cross one of these bridges with its heavy firetrucks.

Could an emergency project like Delaware Drive could divert a planned project like Sawkill Road?

Thiele firmly and quietly said, "Yes."

He said Sawkill won't be considered for bidding until July 2016.

He said because his wife and family use the road too, he is also personally eager to see it made whole. He plans to seek emergency funding from Harrisburg for Delaware Drive, but if he can't get it, another road in Pike County may have to wait.

James May, spokesperson for PennDOT's Dunmore District 4 Office, agrees. The bidding for Delaware Drive will begin next April, he said.

Chuck DeFebo, the business manager who works with Thiele, said that for the past eight years, "the dollars are not going as far as they need to. Costs are rising exponentially.”

"Everybody wants to fight us until they understand the demands versus the dollars, and then they want to support our efforts," said Thiele.

As an example, Thiele said, Pike County will pay an astronomical sum for salt next year, compared with just this past winter. Price across the board are going up faster and higher, he said, but the budget doesn't rise to accommodate emergencies. Planned projects are diverted because there's no other choice, he said.

Meanwhile, residents worry. It's one thing to be on a list. It's another to see your road actually getting fixed. But these jobs need workers and materials, and the money to pay for them. That means a crumbling road in Pike County, and sometimes more than one, will have to wait.

"Deficient Pike bridges restricted": http://bit.ly/1djFTrk

"Study: PA roads fatally deficient": http://bit.ly/17mPRPW

Editor's note: Ken Thiele said Sawkill Road will not be considered for bidding until July 2016. Due to an editing error, the original article mistakenly stated that the road will not be considered for bidding in July 2016. The Courier regrets the error.