A study on how to upgrade Route 981 between Latrobe and Mount Pleasant, in the works for nearly 30 years, finally is moving forward.
And that eventually could lead to a long-sought new interchange off the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Mount Pleasant.
PennDOT will hold a public meeting Thursday at the Pleasant Unity Fire Hall to discuss the initial steps of the Laurel Valley Transportation Improvement Project. The meeting, an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. with a 5:30 presentation, is part of a two-year process to develop plans to improve Route 981 as an alternative route for traffic between U.S. Route 30 in Latrobe and Route 819 in Mount Pleasant, said project manager Troy Pritts.
The study comes at a time when the Latrobe area is booming due to growing traffic at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport and the pending development nearby of two ”air parks” for industrial firms. PennDOT already has a project scheduled for this year to improve roads immediately around the airport.
Mr. Pritts said the study is geared toward improving Route 981, not rebuilding it as an expressway. The existing road, 11 miles between Mount Pleasant and Latrobe, has two narrow lanes with barely any shoulder and several sharp curves that make it difficult for commercial vehicle use.
As a result, commercial traffic often follows a lengthy course using U.S. Route 119 and Route 30 to go between the two boroughs. An updated Route 981 could reduce that trip from an hour to about 15 minutes, said Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson, a strong advocate of the project.
“We really just want to upgrade the 981 corridor, flatten some of the curves and improve the safety,” Mr. Pritts said. “We think of this as being another viable route if that road is improved.”
PennDOT’s traffic counts show the use of Route 981 varies from about 10,000 vehicles a day near the airport to about 5,000 closer to Mount Pleasant. Mr. Pritts attributes that to the condition of Route 981.
One major aspect the study will consider is whether the main link between Latrobe and the Pleasant Unity area should be moved from Route 981. The study will decide whether to recommend upgrading a parallel road, State Route 2023 known locally as Pipetown Road, instead because it is a more direct route with fewer curves.
The second key aspect is consideration of a new interchange off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which the study could recommend to the turnpike commission. In addition to the PennDOT study, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is expected to propose next summer four of nine sites under consideration for new interchanges.
“At this time, no final decisions have been made nor funding programmed for a turnpike connection with Route 981,” turnpike spokesman Carl DeFabo said in a statement.
“Results of the studies will help determine the commission’s next steps. Before an interchange could be built, PennDOT would need to complete required upgrades to Route 981.”
Mr. Anderson said the county considers a new interchange the third step to improving transportation between Latrobe and Mount Pleasant, following this year’s work around the airport and the Route 981 improvements.
“Once we get Route 981 improved, that will be an opportunity to bring in a new turnpike interchange,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is give a shortcut to the manufacturers in Latrobe.”
PennDOT will open bids next month on the project, which will cost more than $10 million to upgrade Route 981 and other roads immediately surrounding the airport. The two-year project will widen Route 981 to three lanes near the Kennametal campus, move the interchange of Gravel Hill Road and State Route 2027 with Route 981 away from the airport and create a traffic circle with a new entrance to the airport.
Mr. Anderson said the airport has become a cash cow for the region, generating $147 million a year in business, according to a recent study. Low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines grew to more than 300,000 passengers at the airport last year.
“That area is really rolling,” Mr. Anderson said.
The Laurel Valley study should lead to preliminary engineering work by 2019 with construction expected in 2024 unless the project is put on a fast track, Mr. Pritts said.
Ed Blazina: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1470.