ATHENS — The state’s Route 199 reconstruction project has been a hot topic in the Valley since it was announced in 2019 — and with the project in full swing, the conversation has only gotten more heated.
The projected four-year reconstruction project runs 2.6 miles from Front Street in Athens Borough to the New York state line on Spring Street. Kriger Construction, Inc. is the primary contractor on this $16.5 million reconstruction project, which is expected to be completed in the Fall of 2024.
The project has certainly caused some headaches for motorists and businesses since it began in September of 2020 with numerous business owners sharing their displeasure at municipal meetings and in the local media.
At this month’s Athens Borough Council meeting, Athens Agway owner Jeff Sanderson spoke out about the lack of communication from PennDOT and the lead contractor for the project.
“I guess (I’m) asking for clarity about is there anybody we can get ahold of when they start blocking off my entrances so they don’t block both and so traffic can still come in and out fairly decent. Is there anybody that you know that we can call to coordinate with to work with if we have issues as time goes on,” Sanderson asked the council.
Athens Borough Manager Mark Burgess and the borough’s solicitor, Jonathan Foster, Jr., both said they would give Sanderson the contact for the local PennDOT representative.
While Sanderson’s business was seriously affected when the project recently came down Main Street in Athens across from his business and blocked his driveways, he said it’s pretty much been an issue since the project began.
“I’ve kind of been dealing with this right from the beginning — blocking my roadway, tri-axles coming through my parking lot, which I don’t even own the one so if it goes to crap, it’s on me,” he said. “Little things like picking up garbage out front from their lunch time. I’ve had to have people move away from my main entrance to get into my store. I only have the two (entrances), I don’t have a back entrance or anything.”
Sanderson said he has spoken with some customers, who normally he sees quite a bit, but now say they are choosing to go elsewhere because of the condition of Route 199.
“I’ll talk to somebody and say ‘Hey, where’ve you been?’ And they are like ‘I’ve been avoiding your street,’ and that’s with multiple people,” Sanderson said.
“Through the whole COVID rush we did phenomenal, so I cannot blame my year-to-date lack of sales solely on (the construction project), but I know a lot of it is. Even if it’s 30 percent of what I’m down year-to-date it’s still a chunk of money.”
Sanderson’s biggest issue is the lack of communication from the project manager and the contractor.
“Communication and is there any way we can pinpoint an ending date,” Sanderson said of his top issues. “Why do we rip up, tear up, leave and then come back and do more. If there was an inconvenience that I knew (was coming) and can plan for, for even a month, then fine. We will suck it up and deal with it, but this has been going on for just way too long.”
“I’m speaking for everybody here,” he continued. “We’ve all known each other for 25 years and these people in here (the borough council chambers), I like them all. They all come to my store. Like I said you (shouldn’t) complain if you don’t do something about it and hopefully this is a start.”
One business that has been at the forefront of the controversy over the Route 199 project has been Parrish Family Deli. Representatives of the business were also on hand at the Athens Borough Council meeting earlier this month.
“We’ve been uprooted for at least four years, and at least two months this year in front of the store. They seem to work and then they don’t. They work and then they don’t,” Gayle Parrish told the borough council.
In recent months, the portion of 199 that runs right past the local deli has been torn up and has made it difficult for customers to even get in to Parrish’s parking lot.
“Over the last month-and-a-half our business has declined almost rapidly with all the work going on out front. You’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars just in a month and we’re a small business. Not to mention people just can’t get to us and access our business which is on a main road on a main corner,” said Derek Parish.
The issue of Kriger Construction starting one part of the project and then seemingly moving on before it’s finished was brought up by both Sanderson and the Parrish family.
“The question I have all the time is they’ll tear one spot up and go elsewhere for a month ... It just doesn’t seem efficient to me,” Sanderson said.
“They didn’t work for eight days straight,” Mark Parrish added.
Mark Parrish also brought up the issue of not having a path to their driveway.
“We were supposed to have access roads into (our place) and that never happened,” he said.
Council member Bob Williams told the business owners that officials in the borough share their concerns.
“For the record, we are just as upset as you are,” Williams said.
One suggestion from Burgess and Foster was for the business owners to contact State Rep. Tina Pickett’s office to see if they could facilitate a meeting with them and the local PennDOT project manager.
“I’m more than happy to intercede with PennDOT for anyone that calls me and have them get to (PennDOT) and talk to them,” Pickett told the Morning Times. “If they are having trouble getting accessibility or someone to work directly with them, give our office a call. We will definitely go to PennDOT about it and make that better.”
Pickett said she understands the frustrations of the small business owners, especially since she went through the same type of thing back in the day.
“People avoid it. If you’re not going to do business on that road you’re probably not going to go on that road. (The project) will keep people from actually doing some business on that road,” Pickett said.
“I can identify because ... years and years ago when the Towanda bridge went down in the flood and I had (a business), we were completely surrounded by construction. There was one little avenue into the business. I still don’t know how we paid the mortgage for two years. That’s what it was and there wasn’t a whole lot you can do to change all that.”
One thing Pickett said needs to happen is Kriger and PennDOT figuring out a way to give customers a chance to get into these businesses.
“They do need to make (sure there are access roads) into these (businesses),” she said.
Pickett knows that the end result will be a good thing for the Valley, but the longtime state representative also feels for the businesses and residents who are dealing with this.
“In the long run it’s a heck of an improvement but boy getting there is a long, long run. Seeing it on paper and hearing it in discussions is one thing. When you get in the middle of it, it’s something else,” Pickett said.
Editor’s Note: Look for more on the Route 199 reconstruction project and its impact on local businesses in a future edition of the Morning Times.