Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

A Proposed Grand Bargain for Fixing Breezewood

Today the NYT published a deep-dive I wrote about why Breezewood – a notorious gap in the interstate highway system at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 70 that is familiar to the millions of people who drive between the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest each year – exists and has never been fixed.

Here’s a couple tangents that didn’t make it into the story. The first is some back-of-envelope guesstimates I came up with about the societal and environmental costs of the status quo arrangement, and the second is a potential grand bargain to fix it.

COSTS

First, while developing the piece, I did some thinking about the social and environmental costs of continuing to make the cars and trucks that pass through Breezewood without stopping drive the extra two miles – that is, what benefits would accrue if cloverleaf ramps were built where I-70 passes over the Turnpike entrance/exit ramp, permitting only those people who wanted a pit stop in Breezewood to go there.

To do that I used the same methodology the American Transportation Research Institute used to come up with its estimate that 1.5 million trucks pass through there each year, and came up with an estimate that 3.5 million passenger cars do, too. That made it into the piece.

Here’s some guesstimate work that didn’t: Because we know from GPS data that of the 1.5 million trucks making that connection, about 80 percent do not stop, I assumed that roughly the same ratio was true of the roughly 3.5 million passenger cars that pass through each year. I further assumed that each truck had one human being in it and each car had an average of two.  Then, using average fuel efficiency rates, I.R.S. reimbursement rates, and the like, I came up with guesstimates for the cost of making those four million vehicles whose drivers don’t choose to stop pass through Breezewood. The results: if a bypass were built permitting them to make a direct connection, each year it would save about $10 million in vehicle operating costs, avoid unnecessary burning of fuel that spews about 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and save collective time roughly equivalent to an average human lifespan.

GRAND BARGAIN?

But, of course, as the piece lays out, if there were a bypass, some of those million or so drivers who do currently stop and spend money in Breezewood each year (since they are off the interstate already anyway) would inevitably choose some other exit to make a pit stop, damaging the Breezewood economy. That’s why business owners and local politicians have fought so hard over the years to prevent the construction of such a bypass. So the question arises: is there some deal that could be made that would clear the way for a bypass while mitigating the losses to Breezewood?

One thing that came to my attention while researching the place is that there is a lengthy stretch of abandoned turnpike close to Breezewood. It looks post-apocalyptic — portions of “The Road” were filmed on it — but bicycle enthusiasts have started flocking to it because it’s a cool stretch of paved road through the wilderness. Locals in the Breezewood area have proposed trying to fix it up, essentially turning Breezewood into a tourist destination rather than a passing-through spot. They need about $7 million to do things like put lights back in the tunnels of the abandoned turnpike so people could safely bike through them, Steve Howsare, the executive director of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission told me.

Several of the Breezewood business owners and development people I interviewed for the piece are big proponents of this plan; among them, Jim Bittner, whose family owns businesses there, has been pushing it as a way to bring in more people to stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants even if there is a bypass. (Here’s a master plan from about a decade ago, and here is more recent formal study called “Pike to Bike,” which determined that it would result in $5.1 million to $8.8 million in economic impact and generated between 57 and 144 construction and ongoing support jobs.)

So my idea was, what if society (federal taxpayers) agreed to pay for the safety and access upgrades to make this idea into a reality, and in return business owners and Pennsylvania officials dropped resistance to a bypass?

The most obvious person to ask about that — someone with the role of speaking for everyone in that area — is the Republican Congressman who represents the district in which Breezewood is located, Rep. Bill Shuster. But his office ignored my repeated efforts to reach out for a conversation about Breezewood.