SARAH FURNACE – Four months after initial funding was secured and ground was broken, construction on Phase I of the much anticipated Brady Tunnel renovation project has officially begun.

“It’s an exciting day,” Clarion County Commissioner Ted Tharan said last Wednesday morning as he and fellow commissioners Wayne Brosius and Ed Heasley joined trail officials and construction crews to mark the occasion at the project site near Sarah Furnace. “It’s a new beginning for an old tunnel.”

The Brady Tunnel renovation project, which is spearheaded by the Allegheny Valley Land Trust (AVLT), will close a major gap in the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail. The project, which is estimated to cost between $4.5 and $5 million, will be completed in multiple phases.

Phase I construction will be completed by local contracting firm Francis J. Palo Inc. of Clarion. Engineering and design work is being completed by Young & Associates Engineers and Surveyors of Indiana.

“This is the project of a lifetime,” Young and Associates engineer Jeff Christy said, noting that his company will probably never again have the opportunity to work on a project like the tunnel renovation. “We’re lucky to be doing this one.”

Phase I, which is estimated to cost approximately $1.8 million, includes 100 percent of the project engineering and design, water diversion and the installation of 52 feet of new liner in the northern portal of the tunnel.

In order to safely repair a large hole in the ceiling near the entrance of the northern portal, Palo contractors constructed a custom-made steel canopy, which will be jacked in place and filled with concrete grout to cover the hole. Once the concrete dries, the canopy will be removed, and the new liner and footers will be installed and regrouted.

“We’ll only repair what needs repaired. A lot of brick in the middle is in really good condition,” explained AVLT executive director Chris Ziegler, noting that the northern end of the tunnel only needs a total of 750 feet of shotcrete, while the southern portal needs only 450 feet. “I don’t see fixing something that’s not broken. We’re hoping to keep as much of the original brick as possible.”

Palo contractors are also excited to be a part of another tunnel project, having completed the work on the Climax Tunnel renovation project.

“We’re happy to be involved in these neat projects,” said Palo contractor Denny Lefever. “It’s fascinating to see how the work was done so many years ago.”

In fact, Lefever reported that the same project design and style of liner used in the Climax Tunnel will be utilized in the Brady Tunnel.

“We looked at other options, but aesthetically this is much better than some other options,” he said.

Construction on Phase I of the project is expected to be finished by Christmas.

Much of the funding for the Brady Tunnel renovation project has come by way of various grants, and Ziegler said that the AVLT is currently awaiting word on three more grant applications — a $500,000 DCNR grant, a $250,000 Commonwealth Financing Authority grant and a $3 million DCED multi-modal grant — to complete the remaining work on the tunnel.

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Brosius said he is glad Clarion County has been able to act as a pass-through entity for the grant funding secured by the AVLT.

“The county is happy to be able to give them [the AVLT] the opportunity to get these grants,” Brosius said. “We’re looking forward to the day this is done. It will be very nice.”

Heasley agreed. “This is a great project to be able to preserve history so future generations can enjoy it,” he said.

Ziegler noted that if all funding is awarded, bid packages could go out in February 2020, and construction could start as early as March.

“It’s gone so fast. With the right funding plan, it [the tunnel] could be open to trail users at the end of next year,” Ziegler said, noting that the recipients of all three grants should be announced by the end of the year. “It would still need some aesthetic work, but the safety issues would be addressed.”

“This is pretty cool. It’s one of those situations where you never thought you’d be here,” she continued. “It’s really exciting.”

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