COLUMN: Route 8 meeting tonight too important to pass up

VE-Around-County
By PETER GREENE

There are 1,074 seats in the Franklin High School auditorium. In over four decades, I have only seen them all filled a few times. Tonight would be a good night to fill them all once again.

Peter Greene

Peter Greene

Just in case you’ve somehow missed the news, the state is trying to decide what to do, exactly, with the stretch of Route 8 between Franklin and Barkeyville – what we sometimes call the new Route 8, even though it is over 40 years old.

One of the options being discussed is to reduce the road to two lanes. Presumably that would mean preserving one side of the four lanes, and then the other side could become well, who knows. A park? A 10-mile-long shuffleboard court? A snowmobile track?

It’s not clear what would happen to the other two lanes, other than the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation would stop taking care of it.

It’s difficult to overstate how disastrous this would be for the entire region.

If you are of a certain age, you will recall getting in and out of the county via the old Route 8. Twisty, narrow and hilly, it takes longer to travel than the new road – much longer if you happen to get stuck behind someone who drives well under the speed limit.

A reduced new Route 8 wouldn’t be that bad, but it would still slow traffic and be just as prone to the slow-driver effect. In winter, it would be worse; the highway seems to attract the worst parts of winter storms. The thought of navigating the snow-covered road along with oncoming traffic is not a happy one.

But beyond the practical, physical issues of getting in and out of Venango County over a narrower roadway, there is the psychological issue as well. A big, wide road is like a wide-open door, an indication you are driving into someplace welcoming and somehow easy to get to. A narrow, cramped strip of pavement suggests you are headed into someplace far off in the remote boonies.

An area where you have to drive beside the remains of an abandoned highway is as bad as an area with row after row of abandoned buildings. It screams that this is a lost, distant place.

Anyone who considers moving a business here will want to know whether it’s an area with quick and easy access. We may not have a lot of heavy industry in our future, but without easy access for shipping, that prospect becomes even narrower.

And while I know some folks are unimpressed by the idea of building tourism in the county, the fact is that bringing folks here from outside to enjoy our natural beauty, festivals and small-town charm does drive a not-insignificant portion of our economy. That also depends on easy access, on people knowing they can get here easily, with no muss or fuss.

We deserve better.

The big cities get state money for mass transit and infrastructure. Pennsylvania has almost a dozen kinds of grants for economic development, not to mention the lengths the Legislature goes to ensure industries like the shale oil sector can come play in Pennsylvania almost for free. Big population centers get to offer all sorts of incentives and subsidies for economic development.

Well, this means economic development for us. We aren’t asking the state to maintain four lanes because it improves the view and makes our local drive pretty. We aren’t asking to keep four lanes maintained because it would be gentler for our local Lexus fleet.

As a rural county, we depend on transportation arteries in and out of the region. Four lanes are not a luxury.

Nor do I buy the argument the road doesn’t carry all that much traffic. I only eat food a couple of times a day; that does not mean that I can just give up food entirely.

The state has not exactly been a powerful force for economic development here. As businesses have left the area, I have not noticed the state offering the kind of incentives to stay – certainly nothing like the $1 billion in incentives they’re offering Amazon to come to Pittsburgh. This is one time we need them to come through for us.

But first they’re going to test us to see how badly we want their help, and part of that test happens tonight at 6 in the Franklin High School auditorium.

Help fill 1,074 seats.

Peter Greene resides in Franklin and is an English teacher at Franklin High School. He can be reached by email at pagreene@outlook.com. For more by Peter Greene, visit TheDerrick.com.