MARKLETON – Somerset County officials on Tuesday authorized a contract for an estimated $2 million fix to the Pinkerton Tunnel – what trail enthusiasts say would be a critical attraction on the Great Allegheny Passage.
The former Western Maryland Railway tunnel is about two miles from the trailhead in Markleton, toward Fort Hill.
The closed-off tunnel is deteriorating so rapidly it could collapse at any time, engineers said, adding that if Pinkerton were to close, it would be beyond repair and never a piece of the popular rails-to-trails project.
“We feel that if we wait any longer, we risk a catastrophic failure of the liner system, which would in essence eliminate this as a potential asset to the county and to the trail itself,” said Brett Hollern, the county’s Rails-to-Trails Association trails coordinator.
The 850-foot tunnel sits closed at Pinkerton Horn, a peninsula shaped by bends in the Casselman River, and flanked by two trail bridges over the river.
“We know the structures on the trail are one of the biggest attractions on the trail,” Hollern said. “You would go across the bridge, go through the tunnel and go across another bridge over the Casselman, within a section of about 2,000 feet. It will be a really unique feature to the trail and certainly will bring people to that neck of the woods on the passage.”
A 1.5-mile trail loop around the tunnel was meant to be temporary, he said.
“It’s not built to the standard of the rest of the passage, not on traditional railroad grade, and its width at some spots is far less than our standard 10 feet,” Hollern said.
The bulk of the project cost, $1.6 million so far, is supported through private funding. The Allegheny Trail Alliance has pledged $1.5 million in private dollars for the repairs, and the local association also has raised money.
The county owns the tunnel, but the commissioners said their vote on Tuesday did not commit any county dollars to the project.
“The contract is structured so that we would be able to continue to raise funds and not get ahead of ourselves from a cost perspective if the funding is not available in its entirety,” Hollern said.
He also said there is a potential that, if there is a gap in the cost, the organizations could approach the county for a financial contribution.
“We have been actively fundraising for about a year now,” he said.
Bypassing the regular competitive bidding process, the commissioners approved a contract with GeoBuild LLC of Columbus, Ohio, to perform what Owen Beachy, structures and highways department manager for The EADS Group, called “emergency” tunnel renovations. Alliance members put out requests for qualifications and interviewed two respondents. The organization also performed a study and inspection of the tunnel in 2005.
Commissioner Joe Betta voted against the measure, saying he wanted to see the emergency situation for himself or have more information in hand before making a decision.
Commissioner Pam Tokar-Ickes said prior meetings have been held to address the Pinkerton tunnel.
“The emergency has been documented by the trail alliance,” Tokar-Ickes said. “With that, I will support this request. If there is a collapse, it’s an asset we have lost. I don’t want to roll the dice and take the risk that we could lose the tunnel.”
Commissioner John Vatavuk said there is a potential to save money by acting quickly enough – before a collapse – to use private funding.
Major earthwork involved in a recent CSX Railroad project to “daylight,” or remove the top of a nearby tunnel, has added to recent deterioration of the tunnel, particularly its western side, Hollern said.
Beachy said he recommended that county officials authorize emergency repairs because a large hole in the roof of the tunnel’s western portal has increased fourfold in the past year. Rockfalls inside the tunnel are active and jeopardize the structural integrity, stability and safety of the tunnel, he said.
A major collapse would mean total loss of the tunnel, Beachy said, adding that a six-month repair process will begin as soon as possible.
“At this point, it would take too long with a true design-bid-build project,” he said. “At this point in time, who knows when the whole thing could collapse?”