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The events that led to the demise of Tyrone’s half-complete flood control project

The Tyrone Borough Flood Control Project was originally initiated in 1945 at an estimated cost of $1,649,000. Tyrone has a lengthy history of severe flooding, including the 1936, 1972 and 2004 floods that caused millions of dollars in damages.
The following is a chronological series of events that led to the work stoppage on the borough’s flood control project. Phase I of the five phase project was completed in 1974 by Chantilly Construction Corp. of Virginia at a cost of $1,187,000. This phase included the Schell Run conduit leading from the Juniata River to a point near Clay Avenue. The first completed phase already cost more than what the whole project was estimated to cost in 1945.
In 1975, the Phase II work that involved the Sink Run diversion by Rodger J. Au & Son of Ohio was coming at a cost of $2.3 million, which included an impounding dam at the base of the borough’s No. one reservoir. It was to divert excess water from Sink Run into Schell Run through a 13-foot conduit placed beneath Route 453, the Janesville Pike. It was scheduled to be complete in May, 1976.
On Feb. 3, 1975, President Gerald Ford proposed a $76.1 million civil works program for Pennsylvania in his fiscal 1976 budget, which included $65.7 million in construction work. Tyrone’s flood control project was to receive $1.7 million in construction money.
A public meeting in the Tyrone Area High School auditorium regarding the flood control work was held on Feb. 20, 1975, to inform the borough and its residents that the total project cost was now estimated to be $30 million and set to be completed in the summer of 1979.
At the meeting, Col. Robert S. McGarry, District Engineer of the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, outlined the progress made thus far on the project, as well as future scheduled plans for completion of the work.
McGarry stated that the Phase III project would be bid jointly by PennDOT and the Army Corps of Engineers involving work on the Little Juniata River from the confluence of Bald Eagle Creek near 10th St. and Blair Ave. to Tyrone Forge, along with the reconstruction of Route 350 east of the borough.
He showed at the meeting how the Juniata River channel would be moved to the right from its present flow, necessitating the removal of the sewage plant’s location at the time and one line of Penn Central rail track in that area. The old Lewisburg Railroad Bridge near Plummers Hollow and the Route 350 concrete bridge near Tyrone Forge would be removed.
According to McGarry in 1975, contracts for Phase III of the flood control project and reconstruction of Route 350 were scheduled to be made in May of 1976.
Borough officials expressed concerns about a new bridge construction which would span the Little Juniata on Pennsylvania Ave. when it was learned that the height of the bridge would be nearly four feet higher than the present street level. Traffic problems were also a concern during bridge construction for residents, businesses and Thomastown residents, but Army Corps of Engineers officials said the present Penn Central Railroad Bridge would be utilized during construction.
McGarry noted that during Phase III, the Bald Eagle Creek from the vicinity of Westvaco to the confluence of the Little Juniata would be nearly 40 feet in width and concrete flumed the entire 4,000 foot distance. The present 12th St. bridge crossing the Bald Eagle would be replaced at the cost of the county. In the area of Westvaco along the Bald Eagle, new levees and walls would be built, along with a new check dam upstream from the present mill dam, which would be removed.
Both the Bald Eagle Creek and Juniata River projects would implement fish protection measures.
McGarry reminded attendees at the meeting that he recalled various stages of flood control project progress and submitted loss figures resulting from the 1936 flood, the early 1950’s flood and the June 1972 flood. In ’36, the estimated loss was $1.4 million, but in 1975’s standards that would be nearly $9 million.
He said the ’72 flood had a $2 million loss, but indicated that completing the flood control project would “virtually eliminate the possibility of further loss from flooding.” When the original flood control project was revived in 1961, the entire cost was set at $11.8 million, but McGarry said that it was now $30 million in 1975.
Later that year in June, The Daily Herald reported that Phase II was 50 percent completed and slated for a July, 1976 completion.
On Dec. 31, Tyrone Mayor Ronald N. Thomas was quoted, “April will see the Tyrone Area Flood Control Project move forward from the location of Ironsville to the No. 12 Penn Central Bridge. This is one more step…in the year 1976 as plans move forward.”
Phase II was officially completed on March 30, 1976 ahead of schedule. Phase III was set to begin in mid -1977 if no set-backs occurred. At that time, the total project was set to be complete by the summer of 1980.
The borough was still planning on moving forward with the project, and on May 11, 1976, council authorized its solicitor, James Bigelow to proceed with the acquisition of the James Shaw property just east of the Juniata River Bridge in the Tyrone Forge area. The property was valued at $5,000 and council authorized payment.
On July 1, 1976, PA Congressman Bud Shuster announced that both House and Senate passed a $5 million public works appropriations bill, where $2.5 million was given to the Tyrone Flood Control Project – bringing the total allocations for the projects up to $9 million plus. But, in Aug. of ‘76 it was reported in the Herald that the $30 million federal-state-local project was at a standstill.
On Dec. 14, 1976, Tyrone’s flood control committee received permission to authorize borough officials to sign an amended agreement between the state Department of Environmental Resources and the borough encumbering an additional $200k for the flood control project in the fiscal year 1976-77 for the Commonwealth’s share of the non-federal costs.
Borough projects coordinator John Fitzpatrick told the Herald on Dec. 31, 1976 that he hoped by next December PennDOT would bid the Route 453 flood control project. Adding, “However, completion is not expected before 1982.”
On Jan. 17, 1977, President Ford’s proposed fiscal 1978 budget included $91.4 million for water resource projects in PA, including $72.6 million for construction work, which Tyrone would receive $1.5 million for its flood control project.
But in March of ‘77, newly elected President Jimmy Carter’s administration announced a tentative list of 38 waterway improvement projects that would be discontinued, which included Tyrone’s project that was already half complete. Carter said the projects were to be discontinued because economic benefits expected from them would amount less then the cost of completing the projects, along with the environmental and safety criteria established by an interagency committee that reviews all Army Corps of Engineers’ projects.
The borough continued with engineering studies that were completed for Phase III of the project in mid-March of ’77. Phases IV and V would involve the deepening and boxing in of both the Bald Eagle Creek and the Juniata River through the borough.
Borough projects coordinator Fitzpatrick said “the project is engineered to handle 25 percent more water than the worst flood we can anticipate.”
The Herald reported on March 23, 1977 that the flood control project officially was put on hold by the White House, stating, “If the Carter program is carried to fruition, the work would go down the drain.” The total project was now estimated to hold a price tag of $40-50 million.
The next day Congressman Shuster asked Tyrone to fight for the Tyrone Flood Control Project to continue. He said, “After all, $1.3 million has already been spent. It would be just criminal to let that go down the drain. So I think we have logic on our side.”
Local State Representative Samuel E. Hayes Jr. expressed his concern about the stoppage of the project by writing a letter to the president urging him to take Tyrone into consideration when making his decision on the possible cuts.
On March 30, 1977, 900 plus people attended another public meeting about the future of the flood control project. 31 people, many legislators and key state, county and local officials spoke of numerous reasons which contradicted the reasons put forth to review the project. Two people, Mark Nale and Thomas Wolfe, spoke on behalf of the conservation organization, Trout Unlimited, and said the project was environmentally harmful and Tyrone’s flood problem was related to too much dredging upstream.
Mayor Thomas urged residents to write letters to government officials about the need for the project to continue. On April 15 of ’77, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission lent support to Tyrone in effort to keep the project federally funded, even though Congress had the ultimate decision.
The next week President Carter agreed to retain some of the original projects asked to be halted, which included Tyrone. On May 9, 1977, $1.5 million fiscal 1978 funds were approved by the House Appropriations Public Works Subcommittee. But on June 16, 1977, the Tyrone Flood Control Project was not involved in the current Senate committee discussions, although already approved by Carter and Congress.
A long standstill of reports occurred until Jan. 24, 1978 when the borough came a step closer to the completion of it flood control project with the inclusion of a $1 million appropriation for the project in President Carter’s budget. It was a part of $61.1 million for civil works projects in PA.
In June of 1978, the House of Representatives approved a fiscal year 1979 appropriation of $1 million for the Tyrone project. The new construction funds brought $8.9 million in the total amount allocated through fiscal 1979 for flood prevention in the local area. The total project cost was now estimated at $36.9 million, while local cost would be $3.5 million and the borough’s cost would be $950k.
Congressman Shuster stated that the bill must be passed by the Senate and survive a House-Senate conference, but he was confident Tyrone’s funds were secured, adding, “Flood control is infinitely less harmful than floods both environmentally and economically. The money is an investment that will be repaid many times over.”
On June 27, 1978, the flood control plans were being revised due to the Army Corps of Engineers then currently cost-sharing with PennDOT and the state Dept. of Environmental Resources, to develop an acceptable flood control/highway scheme in the vicinity of the then new regional sewage treatment plant near Nealmont. If all agencies accepted the scheme, along with an environmental review, the Corps of Engineers hoped to proceed with construction on the lower Little Juniata River in late 1979.
Any delays in the project would come at an ever-increasing cost.
The Herald reported on Aug. 9, 1978 that a constant increase in construction costs may put an end to the 42-year-old Tyrone Flood Control Project. Borough project coordinator Fitzpatrick said if the county, PennDOT and the voters of Tyrone can’t pay their shares of the project, then the Corps of Engineers will probably discontinue it.
Fitzpatrick added that he was meeting with the Blair County Commissioners in the coming week, because the borough wanted to be fully aware of the situation so a referendum could be presented to Tyrone voters in the coming fall elections. The referendum would determine if voters were willing to pay the local share of the project cost.
Blair County’s share of the project for three bridge constructions had then increased from $500k to $1.15 million. Costs kept increasing in all phases. Phase I and II, which were completed, were estimated to cost $95k, but ended up doubling to $211k in total cost.
On Aug. 15, 1978, borough council instructed Solicitor Bigelow to prepare an ordinance to enter the amount of $1.5 million as a referendum on the Nov. ballot. If borough taxpayers voted not to foot the $1.5 million for the project, it would mean the end of the flood control project in Tyrone.
Aug. 29, 1978, Blair County Commissioners reaffirmed their commitment to meet their financial obligations to reconstruct three bridges in Tyrone Borough as part of the flood control project. The county had between $500k-$600k set aside from liquid fuels tax refunds from the state, and as long as the county continued to receive that amount of funding, it would meet its obligations.
Borough council unanimously approved Ordinance No. 809 on Sept. 12, 1978, putting the $1.5 million borough debt for flood control costs on the Nov. ballot. The estimated total cost for all phases of the project had reached nearly $41 million by then. The cost was $11.7 million 12 years prior.
Four days later, funds totaling $1 million for the proposed Tyrone Flood Control Project were among the final U.S. House-Senate compromise figured for projects of Army Corps of Engineers for 1979. The monies were to be used for the section of the project between Ironsville and Tyrone Borough. The 95th Congress officially approved the $1 million for the project in early October of ’78.
Throughout the month of October ’78, numerous editorials and full page ads from supporters were presented to the public encouraging voters to say “yes” to continuing the flood control project. The borough’s share of the local cost for the project would increase Tyrone’s indebtedness by $1.5 million. Approval of the referendum would allow the borough to float a bond issue and increase the borough’s property tax from 13 to 25 mills to meet the expense.
Borough council stated that it supported the project and wanted to encourage a positive response to the plan. Council said it was only fair that the people of Tyrone had a say in the project’s fate.
A Herald editorial was written on Oct. 31, 1978 saying that the Tyrone Flood Control Project was necessary for Tyrone voters to accept, stating, “The need for the proposed project is great since the future development of downtown Tyrone depends on protection from flooding…flood control is necessary for the life of the community since it will protect the life of our central business district – if that decays, so will all of Tyrone.”
The day before the polls opened that Nov., the Tyrone Chamber of Commerce placed a half-page ad supporting the Tyrone Flood Control Project, and asking voters to cast a “yes” for the project’s continuance.
But, it was reported on Nov. 7, 1978, Tyrone voters, by nearly a three to one margin, voted against the referendum to continue the flood control project, saving themselves a 90 percent increase in the borough property taxes that was to be extended over a period of 25 years and would have permitted the borough to float a bond issue to fund the local share of the project.
The rejection of the referendum put an end to the construction of the Tyrone Flood Control Project, leaving it partially complete. Tyrone suffered another drastic flood in 2004.
When will the next one be?