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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Grates at Collapsed Bethlehem Tp Culvert Installed by PennDOT, Sez Former Worker

Commissioner Michael Hudak was the sole No vote on Monday night to a Bethlehem Township plan to repair a collapsed culvert on Easton Avenue, directly across the street from the Keytstone Pub. Although he agreed the matter needed to be addressed for public safety reasons, he argued that more pressure should be placed on PennDOT, which owns Easton Avenue. PennDOT has insisted it had nothing to do with the problem, although it was willing to supply materials and labor for the repair. A day after this vote, it appears that PennDOT had more to do in that area than it remembers now.

In 1977, Debra LaForm stepped out of her stalled car during a rainstorm to make a call for help from the nearby hotel now known as The Keystone Pub. Returning to her car, she suddenly vanished. She had stepped into an open drainage ditch, which sucked her body through an 18" drainage pipe and ultimately, into the Nancy Run Creek.

Her body was found eight hours later.

This has been a problem area in Bethlehem Township for many years because it is a low point in the Nancy Run watershed. Township engineer Leonard Fraivillig refused to approve PennDOT plans for stormwater along that roadway because he believed a straight 96-inch pipe would be necessary to drain the ditch on the west side of Santee Road. PennDOT nevertheless went ahead anyway. Fraivillig's plan was never acted on because it was too costly.

This, along with an absence of fences or guardrails around that ditch, cost Debra LaForma her life.

The collapsed culvert being studied by the township now is on the other side of the street, and PennDOT has insisted it has no responsibility in that area. That's odd because it is PennDOT who installed the metal grates. On Tuesday, Township resident Scott Culpepper came forward. In the early '70s, when he was fresh out of college, he was working for PennDOT as a laborer and was involved in the installation of the grates over the collapsed culvert to which PennDOT disavows any knowledge.

What Culpepper told me has been relayed with his permission to township Commissioners and Manager Melisa Shafer. President Mary Zawarski stated he plans to pursue this matter with State Senator Lisa Boscola. It appeears that the pottery barn rule could be invoked against PennDOT, who did most of the drainage work in that area.

"If in fact PennDot did install the grates then it is clearly their responsibility not ours," noted Commissioner Michael Hudak.


Anonymous said...

FYI - The opinion states the accident happened in 1977, not 1974.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Let me correct my post as to the date. Thanks

Anonymous said...

wow. the moral is, if you're named debra laform, DO NOT come to the lehigh valley.


Lighthouse said...

I had mentioned on here a couple weeks ago that in the early 2000s the Twp's then solicitor had successfully negotiated with PennDOT for them to fix a similar culvert on the other side of the street between the Pub and Butztown. I vaguely recall PennDOT still did not accept "ownership" of the issue, but ultimately fixed it. Even though solicitors have changed I would assume there would be a file for it that was, or can be, looked at(?). Mr. Elliott obviously had a strong argument.

From BT's point of few, I understand the concern for future liability, especially with the larger historic stormwater issues. However, as a citizen this is one thing that has always annoyed the heck out of me--we pay our taxes to both local and commonwealth coffers. Somebody fix the problem. Does somebody else have to die or be injured because of fingers pointing at the other. All hands are happy to be in our tax wallets, but when something needs down--"Its not my problem, its theirs" and vice versa!! Government is to serve OUR collective needs.

Unfortunately, PennDOT always behaves as if it is untouchable. And in the past State Reps/Senator have had no influence with them. They are not a little kingdom, they work for the people! It would be sad if one gov't entity has to use the courts to take on another entity, because at the end of the day, we the taxpayers lose money.

Government,(Twp and/or PennDOT) work for US and fix the dang thing before some other tragedy.

Final note: from the PA House of Reps "guide to your state government": Commonwealth "is of English derivation and implies a special devotion of the government to the common 'weal,' or welfare of its citizens." Do your jobs!

Scott Culpepper said...

Just to clarify, Bernie: I am a City of Bethlehem resident.

Lighthouse said...

I just skimmed the beginning and end of the Supreme Court (1985) decision for the first time. PennDOT and BT seem to both be afraid of ownership of the area not because of this specific little fix, but because of the much larger stormwater issues that could cost millions to only mitigate, not solve. However, they were both defendants in that case.

So lets just imagine, if no one took responsibility for what is being reported as a $17,000 plus in-kind fix because "its the other guy's responsibility". Then a major storm hits that floods from Santee/Hess area through the Palace/Pub and down Willow Park. The current barricade is washed away and there is this current gaping hole, now underwater. Sound familiar? Unsuspecting motorist steps into it and ...

From the SC decision:

"Bethlehem Township was the only party in whom coexisted full control over the ditch, full knowledge of the level of floodwater that could be expected to flow through it during rainstorms, and full constructive or actual notice of the hazardous condition caused by PennDOT's installation of the woefully inadequate 18-inch drainpipe. Despite the Township's superior position to appreciate the risks involved, it never took the simplest of steps to secure the ditch from human catastrophe by installing guardrails, fencing, or protective or warning devices of any kind.

... it was up to the Township to do whatever it could to make its roads safe for the traveling public. Debra's life was the price paid for its failure to settle for the relatively inexpensive measures available to it."

PennDOT and Bethlehem Township, work together and fix this "relatively inexpensive measure". This $17,000 plus in-kind for a gaping hole. This is not the millions of dollars that would be necessary to merely mitigate what is an unfixable stormwater issue. You both are paid from our tax dollars.

Anonymous said...

Penndot is responsible for drainage within the legal right-of-way of a state road.

From what I understand the drainage system here is not in the state right of way, therefore the state does not own or maintain it. Penndot offered to “partner” with the township and supply them the material and help with the work zone setup.

Anonymous said...

Here is the rub. What the Township has been coerced to do, which is actually the State's responsibility, is now and forever a Township liability. In fact, and legally speaking, the Township has now become the owner of a hazardous condition. Not just the little fix they are doing but for, arguably, the entire drainage situation. Any Township taxpayer should be highly aggrieved that its current and future local real estate, Earned Income Tax and so on will be used to fix and perpetually maintain something that is not theirs!! Lack of leadership is the issue in that Township. Next thing they will be buying swamp land out at Green Pond and thinking it is some sort of recreational paradise because the developers and bird lovers told them so!

Bernie O'Hare said...

MR. Culpepper, who came forward, is causing the Twp to reconsider PennDOT's responsibility. But any person who fails to recognize the danger of doing nothing is a fool. Government does have s purpose, and infrastructure is part of it.

Lighthouse said...

Reading through your post on "truth about Green Pond." I clicked on their site, and from it clicked on pictures from Nancy Run Fire Co showing flooding of Nancy Run. It shows pictures from the balcony of the Pub of the very scenario I described (since it happens periodically) of where this hole from the collapsed sidewalk over culvert is under water, and a car stranded in the intersection.

Lighthouse said...


Bernie O'Hare said...

Lighthouse, It is hard to appreciate the dangers there without looking at those pictures. Thanks. I myself neversaw them until now.