Transportation plan calls for $4.7 billion for southwestern Pennsylvania



A draft plan for improvements to the region's transportation system envisions $4.7 billion in spending in the 10 counties of southwestern Pennsylvania in the next four years, a 52 percent increase from the current four-year plan.

The plan for fiscal years 2015 through 2018 signals a reversal of years of diminished spending on infrastructure and public transit, bolstered by the funding bill that the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett enacted last fall. The draft Transportation Improvement Plan was released last week by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a regional planning agency.

"From my perspective, we were able to add significant projects that were simply unaffordable in the last TIP update," said Dan Cessna, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's district executive for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

Among them is a $79 million rehabilitation of the Liberty Bridge in Downtown Pittsburgh, which at present is weight-restricted and rated structurally deficient, meaning its components are deteriorated but not yet unsafe. Numerous smaller bridge and paving projects were added as well, he said.

The TIP for 2015-18 updates the current document, which covers 2013-16. The documents list all of the transportation projects envisioned for the region during the four-year period. The documents are not "wish lists" like some government capital budgets, but must be based on a reasonable expectation that sufficient funding will be available to carry out all of the work. Projects must be listed on the TIP to move forward.

In addition to the increased funding from the state legislation, the plan assumes federal funding will continue at existing levels -- hardly a certainty as Congress remains gridlocked on new surface transportation legislation and a rescue of the near-bankrupt federal Highway Trust Fund. Federal funding authorization for transportation projects expires at the end of September.

"That's always a concern," Mr. Cessna said. "But we can't manage the business anticipating that the federal government won't do their work. They have always come through, even at the 11th hour."

The draft 2015-18 TIP calls for nearly $2 billion in spending on non-interstate highways and bridges, an increase of $534 million or 37 percent; $587 million in spending on interstate highways, up $270 million or 86 percent; and $1.8 billion on transit, an increase of $455 million or 34 percent.

Among the larger projects are $68 million for Parkway West improvements from Interstate 79 to the Fort Pitt Tunnels; more than $100 million for projects on the parkway from Business Loop 376 to Pittsburgh International Airport and from the airport to the Beaver County line; $284 million for nine projects on I-70 in Washington and Westmoreland counties; $20.6 million for the fifth and final phase of Liberty Tunnels rehabilitation; and $30 million for rehabilitation of the Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges.

Also, $11.3 million for Smithfield Street Bridge rehabilitation; $17.1 million for the Elizabeth Bridge; $16.3 million for Route 28 improvements from Russellton to the Butler County line; $15.5 million to repave Route 51 from Lebanon Church Road in Pleasant Hills to Bausman Street in the city; $22.9 million for Glenwood Bridge ramps and interchange; $21.6 million to create a street grid at the former Civic Arena site in Pittsburgh's Lower Hill District; and $81.5 million for three phases of Freedom Road improvements in Beaver County.

The plan also envisions $60 million in private funding for realignment and reconstruction of Route 18 and the nearby I-376 interchange in Beaver County, to be undertaken if Royal Dutch Shell goes ahead with its multibillion-dollar ethane cracker project; $34 million toward a planned public-private partnership to replace smaller bridges; and nearly $25 million for new buses for the Port Authority.

While PennDOT has reduced the number of structurally deficient bridges in recent years by focusing its limited funding on them, pavement conditions have deteriorated, Mr. Cessna said. "With this funding ... more people will be driving over smoother roads."

To drivers who might dread the prospects of expanded road and bridge construction, Mr. Cessna said additional funding will enable his department to better plan and coordinate projects, and reduce the need to break jobs into several phases over multiple years because of limited funding.

"The reality is there is going to be a lot of construction," he said. "We'll make every effort to minimize the impact to the public."

Release of the document comes as the American Society of Civil Engineers prepares to release its 2014 Report Card for Pennsylvania Infrastructure, previous versions of which have issued low grades for the state's roads, bridges and transit systems.

With the added state funding, "it won't be all doom and gloom," said Ralph Gilbert, president of the ASCE Pittsburgh section. "It'll be, 'Hey guys, we've made a little progress and let's celebrate that, but there's a lot of work left to be done.' "

The draft TIP is available for viewing at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission's website, its offices at Two Chatham Center, Downtown, the Pittsburgh Planning Department, county planning offices and many libraries. A public comment period runs to July 18. The commission is accepting written comments at SPC Comments, Two Chatham Center, Suite 500, 112 Washington Place, Pittsburgh 15219 or by email at comments@spcregion.org.

A series of public hearings will be held, including one for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County at 6 p.m. July 14 at the commission's offices. Final approval of the plan is scheduled for July 28.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the Post-Gazette'‍s transportation blog at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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