PHILLIPSTON – Despite a month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, construction has recently wrapped on Phase II of the Brady Tunnel renovation project.

“We were lucky,” Armstrong Trails executive director Chris Ziegler said last week, noting that Phase II of the project had received DCNR approval and contracts were signed in March before the onset of the pandemic. “A lot of projects got held up because they hadn’t done that. We pretty much didn’t miss a beat.”

Spearheaded by Armstrong Trails, the Brady Tunnel renovation project 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.

As with Phase I of the tunnel renovation, Phase II construction was completed by crews from Francis J. Palo Inc. of Clarion. Work began in May and finished in mid-September.

Ziegler joined representatives from Palo and Young & Associates Engineers and Surveyors of Indiana, and Clarion County Commissioner Ed Heasley at the project site in Phillipston on Oct. 7 to officially unveil the newly reconstructed sluice at the southern portal of the tunnel.

“It’s a completely new structure,” Jeff Christy of Young & Associates said of the sluice, noting that the old structure was rusted and unsafe. He pointed out, however, that although project officials wanted to maintain the original integrity of the old sluice, the new one had to be designed to today’s standards. ”It’s a much heavier structure than what was up there before.”

Similar to the original sluice, which was constructed out of treated lumber, Christy said the box for the new structure is also wood-based, but includes a rubberized epoxy material on the inside topped with a decorative exterior coating.

“The exterior is covered with LP smart siding that is often used on houses,” he said, noting that the siding was then painted to get the desired color.

The new sluice sits upon two sets of steel legs, which were also newly constructed out of Core 10, which over time will give the structure a rusted look, without actually rusting.

“It’s just another thing to give the sluice that old look, even though it’s new,” Christy said. “It was important to everyone that we preserve that old look.”

Although aesthetically pleasing, officials pointed out that the main purpose of the sluice is to divert water over the top of the tunnel instead of inside of it, ultimately preserving the life of the portal itself.

“We had some water getting in [the tunnel], but it’s shut off now,” Christy said. “This is a big improvement to save this thing until we can get some liner in it.”

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In addition to the reconstruction of the sluice, Ziegler said Phase II of the tunnel renovation also included the installation of 74 feet of new liner in the northern portal of the tunnel, located near Sarah Furnace.

“There’s enough [liner] done now that it looks really cool,” Ziegler said, adding that Phase I of the project included the installation of 52 feet of liner in the northern portal.

According to Ziegler, the total cost of Phase II was $545,000, which was funded through a $500,000 DCNR grant, as well as $35,000 from the Doppelt Foundation through the national Rails to Trails Conservancy.

“We also got $10,000 from DQE Communications,” she added, noting that DQE recently installed Armstrong County 911 poles along the trail. “We asked them for a donation, and they gave it to us.”

Looking ahead to future project phases, Ziegler said two more funding applications have already been submitted. If awarded, the funding will be used to start installing new liner in the southern portal of the tunnel, which will ultimately lead the way to the tunnel being reopened for public use.

“This will ensure that the portals, which get the brunt of the weather, are safe and sound,” she said.

With construction on the latest phase complete, officials said that they are pleased with how the project is progressing and can’t believe the attention the sluice and other trail landmarks are getting from people locally and out of state.

“It’s such an attraction,” Christy said, noting that in addition to the sluice, other trail landmarks drawing attention to the area include the coaling tower and the turntable. “Someone said that a couple from Erie saw a photo of the coaling tower on Facebook. They drove down here to ride their bikes on the trail just to see it.”

Adding that she has encountered trail-users from as far away as Ohio and Indianapolis this summer, Ziegler said the added recreational use of the trail is also a benefit for the local economy.

“The impact is being felt,” she said, noting that trail users from out of the area stay, eat and shop locally while visiting.

Ultimately, the project officials agreed that the most vital aspects of the tunnel renovation is preserving local history for years to come.

“The whole point of this project is to preserve this tunnel for future generations,” Heasley said.

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