Apr 4, 2017

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike

At the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, the tolls are free ... and so is the terror.
One aspect of Pennsylvania that fascinates me is the remnants of its old transportation infrastructure. Venture anywhere across the state, and it's almost guaranteed you can find an old railroad that's been converted into a bike trail, or an algae-covered waterway that once served as a canal for shipping goods and people.

During your travels, you might hop onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike to reach your destination. You can't talk about transportation in Pa. without mentioning the Turnpike. It's the most infamous highway in the state. It was also known as "America's Super Highway" when it first opened in fall 1940, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Despite this, many Pennsylvanians hate using the Turnpike, whether it's because of traffic congestion, never-ending construction or the cost to drive on it. For these reasons, many motorists will avoid the massive roadway, even if that means taking a less-convenient route.

They do have an alternative, however: A section of the Turnpike exists that has no tolls, no traffic or road work. There's only one stipulation -- you have to leave your vehicle behind.

If that doesn't deter you, then you should consider a trip to the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Oddly enough, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike has fewer potholes than most active roads in the state.
As the name suggests, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is a 13-mile section of the original highway in south-central Pa. that was bypassed in 1968, according to the FHA. This portion of road -- east of Breezewood in Bedford County and west of Hustontown in Fulton County -- consists of three tunnels and a former travel plaza, the latter which has been reduced to an empty parking lot. Enough of the historic highway still exists that visitors can walk, run or bike it at their own risk.

"At your own risk" meaning you don't mind trekking into the depths of Hell.
 So why did the state decide to ditch 13 miles of one of its most-used highways? It's because it became too crowded.

The original four-lane, 160-mile-long Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in autumn 1940. It wasn't long before people took notice of how convenient the highway was. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission released a report showing that more than 2 million vehicles used the highway just one year after its debut, according to the FHA.

Over the next two decades, it seemed as though the Pennsylvania Turnpike only grew in popularity. By 1960, traffic became such an issue that vehicles were backed up as long as 5 miles from the tunnel entrances, according to the FHA. The issue was that the Turnpike reduced to one lane in each direction in the tunnels, causing the backups. You can tell from my previous photo -- inside the Sideling Tunnel -- just how narrow the tunnels were.

The Turnpike Commission conducted a study to find a way to circumvent the congestion. The recommendation was that the Turnpike expand the Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, and Allegheny Mountain tunnels with new parallel tunnels, according to the FHA. The study also suggested bypassing the Sideling Hill, Rays Hill and Laurel Hill tunnels. The Turnpike Commission went forward with the plan, and with it the now-abandoned portion of the highway came to be.

Nearly five decades of negligence has taken its toll on the Abandoned Pa. Turnpike. Tall weeds and cracked asphalt are a common sight at the former roadway. When you walk through the tunnels, you will find pieces of concrete lying on the ground because the ceilings have begun to fall apart.

Spray-paint "artists" have also used the tunnels' walls as canvases for their work. Some of the paintings are elaborate, but about 75 percent of them are swear words, racial slurs and an uncountable amount of spray-paint genitalia.

Water seeps through openings in the tunnels, making them damp even during the driest of summer days. The rooms where tunnel workers once worked are now windowless and filled with dust and rust. Other than natural lighting at both ends, the tunnels have no working electricity, so anyone traveling through them needs a flashlight or headlamp to prevent falling into a pit.

Make sure to bring water-proof shoes or a kayak if you go through the tunnels.
Just because the old roadway is falling apart doesn't mean it's not usable. Because there has been no traffic on it for almost 50 years, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is still in decent condition. Parts of it have chipped away, but for the most part, people can walk and run on it with ease. Bicyclists can ride on the highway, provided they have lighting to see their way through the tunnels. Even when I visited the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike last summer on a 90-degree summer day, there were still people riding the old road.

Nothing says an enjoyable bike ride quite like a scorching-hot, cracked roadway with no shade.
The visitor traffic has attracted enough interest that some folks have started an effort to revitalize the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike for a new purpose.

The "Pike 2 Bike" project is an initiative to turn the former highway into a revitalized public trail. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission helped start the effort by selling the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy for $1 in 2001, according to the Pike 2 Bike project official website. That's not a bad deal considering a bottle of water from a vending machine can cost nearly three times that amount.

(On a side note, you're going to notice that the Pike 2 Bike website says the Turnpike is about 130 years old despite the fact I said it opened in 1940. That's because construction of the "Pennsylvania Turnpike" began back in the 1880s as a railway route, according to the FHA website. The work wasn't completed, even though 4.5 miles of tunnel were dug through seven mountains, according to the website. The "actual" Turnpike we know and love [or hate] today opened in 1940. Anyway, just covering myself here. Now back to your regular programming.)

Since about 2003, the "Friends of the Pike 2 Bike" committee has controlled the effort to convert the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike into a trail, according to its website. About 14 years later, however, the old roadway remains about the same. The main issue seems to be funding. A study showed that the project would cost about $3.5 million, according to the Pike 2 Bike website.

Some of the anticipated repairs for the trail would include stabilizing the tunnels, adding lighting and solving drainage issues. There are other proposed amenities like trail heads, toilets, signage and parking lots, according to the website. The committee is also considering paving one side of the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and keeping the other side untouched for historical value, according to the website. I'm left to ponder how the committee will handle the abundant graffiti in the tunnels -- whether some of it will be preserved or if it will be eliminated as a whole.

The price tag for the Pike 2 Bike project is a bit high, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor. As it is, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike can be dangerous in some areas, especially the tunnels where there is little lighting and plenty of places to trip or even fall. During my trip last summer, my friends and I noticed several narrow, but deep, pits along the walls in the Sideling Tunnel. They're large enough that an unknowing passerby can fall 7 or 8 feet down and suffer serious injury. Falling concrete and potholes also present liabilities. Repairs are going to be necessary to ensure no one leaves the proposed trail in an ambulance.

A revitalized trail could help stimulate local economies, as well. Pennsylvania municipalities such as Pittsburgh and Jim Thorpe have reaped the benefits of being bike friendly. Pittsburgh serves as the western start of the Great Allegheny Passage, a nearly 150-mile rail-trail that starts in the "Iron City" and ends in Cumberland, Maryland.

Point State Park in Pittsburgh serves as the western start to the Great Allegheny Passage.
The GAP is one of the most publicized bike trails in the country, and because of this notoriety, more people are riding it and visiting the towns along its route. Businesses such as hotels, shops and restaurants can only benefit from tired and hungry bike riders looking for a place to rest for a bit.

Jim Thorpe also experiences a similar economic boon because of its proximity to the D&L Trail, which extends from the edge of town to White Haven and now Mountain Top because of a recent trail expansion.

Jim Thorpe has a bike rental shop not far from the D&L Trail. Behind the store is the Molly Maguires Pub & Steakhouse, which I have eaten at several times while riding my bike on the D&L Trail.
 Bicyclists tend to be tourists, as well, so any town near a rail-trail can cash in on an opportunity such as the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. Breezewood already accommodates motorists on the active Pennsylvania Turnpike with numerous hotels and eateries, so having the abandoned portion of the highway can only mean more tourism money coming in.

One of the last reasons Pike 2 Bike can be beneficial is because it could help preserve a significant part of Pennsylvania's history. If it continues to receive little maintenance, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike could deteriorate to the extent where it is unusable to bicyclists and walkers/runners. The former highway is a significant part of the state's history. It is a remnant of one of Pa.'s most ambitious transportation projects. The current Turnpike has been altered several times over the years, and the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is a physical reminder of how the highway has needed to change over the years to meet transportation demands.

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike might just be an old road, but the novelty of its existence attracts people from across the state and the country. People are fascinated by abandoned locations such as Centralia (the mostly deserted Pennsylvania town with an active mine fire below it). These places create a feeling of uneasiness, but also a sense of curiosity and adventure, too. This atmosphere of wonder has attracted people to the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike for decades now, and it likely will for years to come.

If you're interested in seeing the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, you can visit the Pike 2 Bike website here to get the most accurate directions. Make sure you have flashlight and possibly a jacket if you go through the tunnels since they are dark, damp and cold, regardless the time of year. Don't forget to bring your sense of wonder, too.