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PA Turnpike spent $16M planning the last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway – now it might not happen | TribLIVE.com
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PA Turnpike spent $16M planning the last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway – now it might not happen

Theresa Clift
GTRmonfay071612
Tribune-Review
A lone car travels the Mon-Fayette Expressway between Brownsville and Uniontown. (Trib photo)

Despite having spent at least $16 million planning the last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is halting work in response to concerns raised this week by regional leaders.

The expressway, estimated to cost $2.2 billion, would connect Route 51 in Jefferson Hills with Interstate 376 near Monroeville — the last stretch in a decades-long effort to link I-376 to I-68 near Morgantown, W.Va.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a planning agency with representatives from 10 counties, delayed a decision Monday on whether to include the project’s final 14-mile section in its long-range plan.

The Federal Highway Administration cannot approve an environmental impact statement — a requirement for construction — unless the project is included in the SPC’s plan, said Carl DeFebo Jr., Turnpike Commission spokesman.

“The PA Turnpike has a legislative mandate to develop the Mon-Fayette Expressway, but our role is not to serve as an advocate for the project,” Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said in a prepared statement. “This is a regional project, and the decision as to whether it is of value to the region should be made by those who live there. If the region does not want to move forward with the expressway, we will certainly respect their decision.”

Some SPC commissioners questioned whether the project, which has been planned for more than three decades, would achieve its original goals of attracting redevelopment in the Mon Valley and connecting the region.

“(We shouldn’t be) stuck with a design that was done a long time ago while transportation population centers and job centers have changed,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, an SPC member who is in favor of nixing the project.

If the project is canceled, the Turnpike Commission would reallocate $2.2 billion in its funds to other turnpike projects, which have been identified by state legislators, DeFebo said. The eligible options include a project in the Philadelphia area along I-95 and two projects along the Southern Beltway: US-22 to I-79 and I-79 to the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

Turnpike interchanges could be options, DeFebo said, but the Turnpike Commission could not immediately identify them.

Fitzgerald wants the turnpike funding to stay in the region and be used for other projects that would help redevelop the Mon Valley. He did not offer any suggestions but said discussions were ongoing with lawmakers and PennDOT.

“We’re seeing if there is a way to repurpose the funding for projects that might be more beneficial to the Mon Valley and Mon-Fayette region,” Fitzgerald said.

The majority of SPC commissioners agreed with Fitzgerald, but a handful, including Fayette County Commissioners Chairman Vincent Vicites, voted against tabling the decision on the expressway.

Vicites said he wants the expressway to be completed so the part that’s completed can be fully utilized.

“To fully realize the impact for economic development, we need that link into Pittsburgh,” Vicites said. “Otherwise, it’s a road to nowhere.”

Mon Valley Alliance CEO Chris Whitlatch agreed.

“Many people have worked very hard for many years. We owe it to the residents of the Mon Valley to see this project to fruition,” Whitlatch said.

The Turnpike Commission has paid $16 million to consultants over the last two years for design, traffic projections and environmental work for the project, DeFebo said.

One of those firms was Philadelphia-based Pennoni, which planned to hire engineers at its Pittsburgh-area office for the project, said Anthony Castellone, transportation division manager.

Dozens of other firms had been doing design and engineering work and likely had similar hiring plans, Castellone said.

Design for the expressway’s last leg started in 2004. Construction was scheduled to begin in 2022.

The expressway would have created 10,055 direct roadway design and construction jobs, DeFebo said.

“The PA Turnpike Commission stands ready to deliver this project, but only if the people of the region determine that it is a priority,” Compton said.

Vicites said he wants the SPC to vote at its next meeting on June 26 to add the project to the long-term plan.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669.

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