Flooding Strikes Again
Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who last month’s flooding impacted. While not widespread, flooding was the worst ever seen in much of the area between Lycoming and Loyalsock Creeks, from Loyalsock Township north and east into Sullivan County and parts of Bradford County. We have been active assessing flood damage, inspecting roads and bridges, and planning improvements to move critical infrastructure away from flooding.
Raise and/or Relocate Roads
In May 2013 my Article in PA Township News introduced the novel concept of raising roads above flood levels or relocating them out of the floodplain, and I also presented the concept that year to the PA Association of Floodplain Managers. I recommended moving roads completely out of the floodplain where possible, or at least out of the flood way into the flood fringe. I also recommended raising roads that cannot be moved. The article was met with a great deal of positive response, but naturally such a radical departure from the norm is not easy to implement.
One of our clients actually started the process. Two summers ago we met with our local State Representative, County and DCNR officials (the road accesses State Forest and Game Lands), plus a gas driller who has leases in the area. Two abandoned railroad grades lie far uphill of a road that flooding repeatedly wiped out, including 1996, 2011 and 2016. All parties agreed that relocating this road was a good idea, but funding was a sticking point. The Township saw the need, and hired us to prepare plats and deed descriptions to purchase the abandoned Railroad Right Of Way (ROW), which the Solicitor is sending to the property owner in New York City. The Township was proceeding with all possible haste, but unfortunately, this Township and this road were among the very worst hit by last month’s floods. With flooding two feet deeper than the previous records, the road was completely wiped out again, including three bridges badly damaged. For much of its length there is absolutely no trace of the road; in others the asphalt buckled and shoulders were scoured several feet deep. Tragic devastation for the Township and local residents. If there is a potential silver lining, this has galvanized the effort to relocate the road, and we hope that disaster relief funds can be applied to moving the road up onto the railroad grade, rather than rebuilding in place.
Raising a road in place should be quicker than relocating, because in most cases right of ways should not need to be obtained (although possibly expanded). Because construction would by definition occur in the floodplain, environmental permits would be needed. A raised road would probably need armoring (rip-rap, etc.) to protect it from flood damage, but the road will still be at risk for damage. The goal of raising would be to reduce or eliminate times when the road is flooded or impassible, and even if it floods, prevent damage, so the road is passable as soon as flooding recedes, and does not need repairs. For example, PA Route 87 was closed for months in 2011, necessitating detours up to 60 miles every day for thousands of drivers including school buses.
Relocating a road will be, in most cases, a years-long effort primarily due to the time it takes to acquire right-of-ways from property owners and permits from regulatory agencies. We urge municipalities and PennDOT to consider raising or relocating roads out of the floodplain, and if they have strong candidates for such action, to start the process now, before the next flood hits. We understand that most municipalities don’t have the funds to actually construct new roads. However, the engineering, surveying and legal work to acquire right-of-ways are the most time-consuming, yet least expensive part of the effort. Once the right of way is obtained, consider designing the road and obtaining permits for construction; permitting is another months-long process. ROW’s are permanent; designs and permits are good for years.
With these efforts complete, grants can be pursued; Funding Agencies are much more likely to award grants when a completed design, permits and ROW’s are already in hand. Construction can then occur when funds are available. Most importantly, should a major flood hit, as it did last month, everything is in place to immediately proceed with raising or relocating the road, and disaster funds can be constructively used to put the road where it should be, rather than waste them rebuilding the road where it is now, and wait for the next flood to wipe it out again.
Planning Construction Projects – Strike While the Iron is Hot
We still see tremendously low prices in the construction projects that we put out for bids this year; in October we received 11 bids for a gravel road project in Bradford County. Contractors do not have an abundance of projects to bid on, resulting in tough competition. We see this continuing through the winter, and we urge our clients to consider putting projects out to bid this winter for a spring construction start. Those of us who have been in this business long enough remember when times were good (a decade ago). If you think back that far, competition was greatly reduced, and construction prices reacted accordingly. While this is a contrarian approach, municipalities have a much steadier income stream than the private sector. Bidding contracts when construction is slow benefits both municipalities (better prices) and contractors (more work through challenging times).
Act 13 payments in 2016 were generally similar to previous years, but gas companies still complain that the funds aren’t always spent on actually building infrastructure. Other parts of the state push to eliminate the Act 13 Impact fees and replace it with a severance tax, that would be distributed “evenly” across the state (less money for us). We maintain that the best way to continue to receive Act 13’s benefits to our local economy is to spend the funds on actual infrastructure projects, and then heavily publicize the fact that you have done so. A reminder, Act 89 increased the Prevailing Wage threshold to $100,000 for road improvement projects (a broad category that includes bridges and culverts, stormwater management, etc.). Any such project that costs less than $100,000 does not need to pay Prevailing Wage, offering the potential for significant cost savings. A well-planned project can accomplish a great deal with $100,000.
Be Ready for Pickup in Gas Activity
While not widespread, we have seen quite a pickup in gas drilling in parts of the areas we work. As drilling dramatically tailed off several years ago due to the sharp price drop, a number of vertical wells were drilled and placed into operation, in some cases to tie leases up. We are seeing drillers going back to those pads to drill horizontally and place those pads into full operation. Other factors are multiple gas-powered electricity generating plants under construction and design locally, plus gathering and transmission pipeline construction has been active even while drilling slowed. We have the impression the gas industry is taking the steps to be ready to ramp up production should prices climb. Having lived out west in the oil patch for a few years I am reminded how gas drilling activity starts and stops with a rapidity that we don’t see here in the east. The price of oil goes up, and so does production and drilling activity; and the reverse when prices go down. The first ramp-up a few years ago caught all of us completely unaware. We urge all of our clients to be prepared for another surge in drilling activity, possibly greater than the first round.