The most visible evidence of the natural gas industry in northcentral Pennsylvania has been trucks.
Lots of trucks. Trucks of all weights, shapes and sizes.
It is impossible to go anywhere in the region where those trucks are not visible.
They carry workers, heavy equipment, water, wastewater, frack sand and other materials 24 hours a day to and from gas drilling sites.
While there are concerns with how gas industry trucks impact local roads and bridges, the gas industry has done a "fairly decent job" of maintaining the roads it uses, according to Mark Murawski, Lycoming County transportation planner.
"If there was a widespread problem, my phone would be ringing off the hook," he said.
In fact, the industry has seen value in improving roads, particularly rural roads not built to handle the number of heavy trucks it uses, and is putting many of them in better condition than they were.
"A lot of the problem stems from rural roads not being built to handle heavy truck traffic," Murawski said. "When (gas companies) need to use certain roads, it is more cost-effective to completely rebuild them than keep fixing them.
"I think for the most part, (companies) have been pretty good," he added. "I've not heard many complaints. In many cases they end up with a better road than they had before the gas drillers came to town."
Murawski said that although gas companies have been willing, if not eager, to maintain local roads, one issue continues to fester: traffic congestion.
"I get more complaints about traffic congestion in our small communities. Hughesville, Muncy and South Williamsport seem to be the main ones," he said. "It is a much bigger deal (than road damage)."
Some local drivers accustomed to pre-Marcellus Shale traffic may be intimidated by heavier volumes of traffic or the larger vehicles they are encountering on local roads, Murawski said.
"Many local drivers don't have a good comfort level mixing in with (heavy) traffic - or the patience to sit and wait at delays," he said.
Chronic problem areas include the intersection of Routes 405 and 220 in Hughesville, the intersection of Routes 118 and 42 east of Lairdsville and the Market Street Bridge spanning the West Branch of the Susquehanna River between Williamsport and South Williamsport, he said.
"Pine Creek has some noisy trucks running up and down it," Murawski said. "A lot of people are concerned about trucks traveling at a high rate of speed through the valley. They've never seen any kind of traffic increases like that before.
"Another area I get many safety and congestion complaints is on U.S. 220 between Jersey Shore and Williamsport, especially the U.S. 220-Pine Run Road intersection," he added.
In spite of the congestion, Murawski said there has not been a significant increase in vehicle accidents.
"I have not seen a drastic increase in accidents," he said. "A lot of people are driving more cautiously."
Murawski said there were 50 accidents involving trucks in 2008. In spite of a 300- to 400-percent increase in truck traffic, there were only 56 such accidents in 2010, he said.
"Gas companies put a very high premium on vehicle safety," he said. "I think that translates into those accident statistics. They are not as high as you'd expect."
The Muncy Township supervisors are worried that could change, especially with the explosion of industry-related development seen in the eastern part of the county.
The supervisors recently sent a letter to county and state officials expressing grave concerns about how that development will impact traffic safety. They expressed concern that development is occurring in multiple municipalities by many developers with no oversight as to the cumulative impacts on local traffic.
"Lycoming County and PennDOT need to develop short and long term plans for dealing with highways in this development corridor before we end up with another situation similar to the Route 220 area of Woodward Township or the Golden Strip in Loyalsock (Township)," they wrote.
PennDOT plans to conduct a study of the Route 220 corridor between Williamsport and Jersey Shore. That corridor was congested prior to the gas industry coming to the area, and since then, the situation has gotten worse, Murawski said.
Although congestion is, for now, the most immediate concern regarding the gas industry, local municipalities still need to be vigilant to ensure roads are maintained and their conditions kept safe.
Those who own roads, including the state and local municipalities, may post weight limits on the roads and require companies that use them to be bonded to cover the cost of any company-related damage.
Weight limits cannot be set arbitrarily, Murawski said.
"Municipalities have to conduct an engineering study to document what weight the road can support," he said. "Once they determine what the weight limit is supposed to be, they must then pass an ordinance to establish that weight limit and erect signage. The signage must be in a proper location to ensure heavy haulers can make a timely decision to take another route."
Local law enforcement agencies also need to be notified of the posted weight limits, he said.
According to Rick Mason, state Department of Transportation District 3 spokesman, the state's process for posting weight limits is similar to that used by local municipalities, except the states does not go through the ordinance process.
Mason agreed that some companies find it advantageous to improve roads rather than continually repair them.
"Some have found it makes greater economic sense to upgrade some of these posted roads rather than regularly pay a contractor to have them repaired," he said.
Unless posted with a weight limit, roads and bridges should be able to carry loads of up to 80,000 pounds, said Mason.
The number of state-owned bridges in the district that have either been posted with weight limits or closed altogether actually has decreased in recent years, he said.
In January 2010, 27 state bridges were posted or closed, in January 2010, that number dropped to 25, and as of January of this year, 22, he said.
According to Murawski, for a vehicle to exceed a posted weight limit, the state has to issue it a special permit.
District 3, a nine-county area that includes Lycoming County, has seen a substantial increase in the number of special permits issued for overweight or oversized vehicles, according to Mason. In 2009, 21,700 such permits were issued. That number jumped to 48,000 in 2010, and 79,600 in 2011, he said.
PennDOT does not keep track of the difference between permits for overweight or oversized vehicles, nor does it break the permits down by county, he said.
However, most vehicles used by the industry do not exceed the 80,000-pound threshold, Murawski said.
"Most of these trucks are legal and don't need a special hauling permit," he said. "There are a few instances when they do."
According to Murawski, there are different classifications of roads and design standards that apply to each classification.
Road classifications include arterials, collectors and local streets.
Arterials are highways designed for high density intrastate or interstate travel, typically connecting metropolitan areas, Murawski said.
Collectors are primarily for intracounty travel with a focus on shorter distances and connecting smaller towns, he said.
Local streets and roads provide direct access to land development such as businesses and residences, he said.
Each classification has its own specific designed standards that allow the roads to handle the volume of traffic and average weight of vehicle using the road, Murawski said.
"Obviously, local streets were never designed to accommodate arterial truck traffic," Murawski said.
Murawski said he continues to worry about the cumulative impact of the industry on major highways that cannot post weight limits or be bonded.
An example of that is Route 15.
A section of that highway north of Williamsport is undergoing a $20 million repaving. A typical major repaving should last about 20 years, he said.
"If we're paying $20 million every 20 years, that's fine," he said. "But if I'm paying $20 million every 10 or 15 years, it's a problem because the gas companies are not paying to fix that road. It's the general driving public who has to pay that bill."
While the increase in vehicles traveling the state's highways and roads drives revenue from the state gasoline tax, which is used to maintain roads and bridges, it is not keeping up with the deterioration caused by the vehicles, Murawski said.
"That money is going to help fix arterials," he said. "The question is, do (the roads) need maintenance more frequently? The answer is 'yes.' The gas tax revenue is not sufficient to keep up with the investment needed to maintain our arterials."
Murawski said revenue from the state impact fee should be able to supplement gas tax revenue.