By Jennifer Learn-Andes, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The Coal Street extension project city officials are pushing to keep alive is more expansive than paving another 280 feet and will cost an estimated $12 million, according to city Operations Director Butch Frati.
The cost and scope of the project are of public interest because Luzerne County, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and Wilkes-Barre Township are assessing what, if any, real estate tax revenue they’re willing to sacrifice toward the local 20 percent match, which would be around $2.4 million. The project is on a list qualifying it for 80 percent state or federal funding after 2020, officials have said.
Additional work would be required to continue Coal Street to Pennsylvania Avenue because the active railroad cutting through the proposed extension is atop a bank more than 4 feet high that must be ripped out and rebuilt at ground level, Frati said.
This was always part of the plan, Frati said. As then-city major Tom McGroarty said during a 2002 meeting about the project, the only other options, neither feasible, would be building a “huge” tunnel or bridge allowing motorists to pass under or over the railroad crossing.
Leveling this railroad embankment between Scott and Market streets would lead to other work.
While the train crossing at Market Street is at ground level, trains cross over Scott Street on a railroad bridge. The railroad incline would be too steep with a ground-level crossing at the new Coal Street extension and a railroad bridge a short distance away at Scott Street, Frati said. The city wants to tear down the bridge and create a ground-level train crossing at Scott Street.
The project would spill into the next northbound block because eliminating the Scott Street bridge would require railroad bank removal and reconstruction toward Butler Street, which has a ground-level crossing, Frati said.
Also part of the plan is additional drainage work and the elevation and widening of Scott Street in the area of the railroad bridge, Frati said. The road dips at this spot and is prone to flooding in heavy rain, to the degree it sometimes must be temporarily closed, Frati said.
The Scott Street bridge is unattractive and may need repairs, Frati said.
“This project would clean up that whole area,” he said.
Andrew Reilly, executive director of the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority, which owns the railroad, said the bridge is regularly inspected and needs minor repairs but has no major structural issues.
Authority representatives in the past have discussed concerns the project would disrupt rail service for companies that rely on the line to receive materials and/or deliver manufactured products. These companies include Bridon America Corp., Safety Kleen Inc., Huttig Building Products and Air Products and Chemicals Inc. — all in Hanover Township — Solomon Container Service and the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pittston Lumber in Pittston and Milazzo Industries in Jenkins Township.
Frati said the track through Wilkes-Barre would be down an estimated two or three months for the project, but city officials have met with impacted companies several times in recent years to discuss options to minimize the inconvenience.
The $12 million would include acquisition of a portion of the parking lot attached to the county-owned human services building on Pennsylvania Avenue, Frati said. The project costs were reduced because a private developer already funded and completed a 300-foot portion of the Coal Street extension leading to the Turkey Hill on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, he said.
Frati said several entities have expressed support for the extension, including the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry.
“We always felt from the beginning the Coal Street project would not be completed until it got people to Pennsylvania Avenue at Union Street. We need to have that open access to downtown Wilkes-Barre,” he said.
The city regularly receives complaints about traffic jams because a “large number” of motorists commute to the downtown for work, he said. If the extension proceeds, the city would re-evaluate one-way streets, on-street parking and the number of driving lanes to improve traffic flow downtown, including the section of Union Street that would link to the extension, Frati said.
Frati said he respects county Councilman Stephen A. Urban, an outspoken project critic, but encourages him and others to look at the “big picture” and consider the project’s benefits for the county seat.
The county, school district and township are poised to receive refunds from approximately $3 million left from a program that diverted property tax revenue to fund infrastructure improvements on Highland Park Boulevard and Mundy and Coal streets. The city did not give up tax revenue for this program but maintains money should be kept in the pot to fund the extension project.
Urban said Wednesday he was not aware the project included extensive railroad work and believes that further bolsters his argument the extension plans should be scrapped, arguing the negative impacts and cost far outweigh any benefits to motorists. The redevelopment authority still owes the county and its community development loan fund a combined $3.5 million for its purchase of the railroad years ago, and disruption could lead to lost customers, compromising its ability to repay, he said.
The county parking lot downsizing also would decrease the value of the county human services building, he said.
“This project would be messing with our assets,” Urban said. “This project is even more ridiculous than I thought it was before.”