(EDITOR'S NOTE: As 2012 comes to a close, Sun-Gazette reporters take a look back at the major news stories of the year. This series continues daily through Sunday. Then, next Monday, watch for a special photo section, Yearbook 2012.)
Unless they come upon a construction crew during their daily commute, most drivers don't spare a second thought to the effort that goes into keeping roadways and bridges safe and maintained.
That changed in September 2011, when flood waters from Tropical Storm Lee decimated local roads and bridges.
SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
The new Slabtown Bridge is prepared for its re-opening to traffic, as seen from the west bank of the Loyalsock Creek, on Route 973.
Destroyed was the Slabtown Bridge on Route 973.
Celebrated just over a year later in early November, however, was the opening of a new $3 million Slabtown Bridge, eliminating a 12-mile detour added to the daily commute of those who relied on the bridge to get to work.
It was among the major road and highway projects in the county this year, and perhaps the quickest bridge project of its size to be carried out here after it was put on the fast track by the state Department of Transportation.
"PennDOT knew from the start that we needed to expedite the replacement of the Slabtown Bridge" said Rick Mason, PennDOT spokesman. "Under normal circumstances, a project of this magnitude would take two and a half to three years to design and construct."
In the late 2011 storm's aftermath, the local PennDOT district had identified close to 2,000 sites that had suffered severe damage. The district includes
Lycoming, Sullivan, Tioga, Bradford, Union, Snyder, Northumberland, Montour and Columbia counties.
As of November 2012, the department had completed more than 99 percent of flood repairs, according to Mason.
"PennDOT employees and our partners went the extra mile, both literally and figuratively, in addressing the flood recovery efforts required following the late 2011 flooding events to hit the region," Mason said.
"The district's top priority remained flood recovery throughout the winter and spring this year," he added.
By the end of spring, PennDOT crews had made repairs at 1,500 flood-damaged areas within the district.
Among the department's primary concerns immediately after the flood were the reconstruction of Route 87 north of Montoursville into Sullivan County and the Slabtown Bridge, which connected Route 973 to Route 87 after taking vehicles across the Loyalsock Creek.
"It was a hardship on a lot of people around here, especially those who lived by the creek, those who lost their homes and property," said Steve Fink of Montoursville. "On top of losing everything, they had to travel around that detour to get anywhere."
"We are so thankful for this bridge," said Donna Rae Kriner of Montoursville, one of those who was forced to take the detour. "Especially after all the destruction, this bridge gives us some hope, makes us smile."
Gwen Fink, of Montoursville, said she does not drive, but often has friends pick her up and take her to appointments.
"When the bridge was out, my friend would come to my house and it would add an extra 20 minutes for her to reach my home. Now combine that with her taking me to the appointment, driving back to my house, and then driving to hers. That's a lot of extra time traveling. It was rough on everyone," she said.
When the bridge opened in November, Kriner, like many locals, felt compelled to go to the opening ceremony. There, she explained, she personally thanked every worker for his or her efforts.
"We are just so thankful and grateful for how quickly this bridge was replaced," Kriner said.
She explained that she regularly stops her car in the middle of the bridge, gets out, and stands on the bridge.
"I stop in the middle of the bridge when I drive across in the morning. I get out and do a little dance right there in the center," Kriner said.
"Then I dance and yell, 'I love this bridge,'" she added.
While that was a huge moment for local bridges and highways, it was not the only cause for celebration.
The new DuBoistown River Bridge over the West Branch of the Susquehanna River was opened to traffic late in the year. With the new bridge in place, PennDOT engineers have reached a milestone that they've been working toward for almost two decades - the replacement of all structurally deficient bridges within the nine-county district.
That goal was set by the department in the early 1980s, when the first Billion Dollar Bridge program was funded.
"We have now replaced the last structurally deficient river bridge in our nine-county district," Mason said.
Construction on the $18 million bridge took just over two years to complete.
"The old DuBoistown Bridge was both structurally deficient and functionally obsolete," he said.
"Quality roads and bridges are a critical element to any healthy economy," Mason said. The new bridge is safer than the old one and will provide for more efficient travel, ultimately saving local motorists time and money.
Safety also is on the agenda for Route 15 south of the city along the Montgomery Pike.
This year, workers focused their efforts on the section of road from the rest area near Bald Eagle Mountain to the Kwik Fill gas station near South Williamsport.
"Most of the work this season involved cutting back the mountainside in order to improve sight distance in the vicinity of the scenic overlook," Mason said.
"Next year, the major work will include installation of the center line concrete barrier and resurfacing," he added.