Plan for Palmer airport connector gets update

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A long-discussed project to upgrade a road to connect Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe to the Pennsylvania Turnpike will be updated by the state.

After meeting with Westmoreland County commissioners, state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch last week agreed to have state engineers update plans for the Laurel Valley Connector from the airport in Unity to the turnpike.

"This is the No. 1 transportation project in the county," Commissioner Tyler Courtney said. "This project has been talked about for 40 years, but we need to get it moving."

The need for the connector has grown, according to officials, because of increased vehicle traffic to the airport and because of the success of several manufacturing companies in the area, including Kennametal and manufacturers near Latrobe and in the Westmoreland Airpark next to the airport.

"With the expansion of the airport and the adjacent airpark for businesses, we need this," Mr. Courtney said.

The commissioners met with Mr. Schoch on Sept. 26 when Gov. Tom Corbett was in New Kensington to discuss a new public-private partnership law for transportation improvements, Mr. Courtney said.

He said the commissioners hope to have a report on the connector project back from the state by the end of the year. Engineers will review previous engineering studies of the connector to see whether new housing or commercial development has changed any of those studies.

The Laurel Valley Connector would be a combined project between the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Commission. It would upgrade about 10 miles of the two-lane state Route 981 from the airport to the Mount Pleasant area. Engineers would evaluate the most feasible way to connect it to the turnpike.

That might be what is called a "slip" entrance and exit to the turnpike where Route 981 crosses it, similar to the Route 66 Amos Hutchinson bypass, Mr. Courtney said. Or, Route 981 might be connected to Route 119, which already connects to the New Stanton interchange of the turnpike. That would require land acquisition.

Increased development

County officials, economic planners and business leaders all agree the road improvement is needed.

"We have trucks from businesses near the airport that have to take Route 30 to the turnpike at New Stanton, and Route 30 is very congested, especially around Westmoreland Mall," Mr. Courtney said.

"We have trucks from the airpark that are headed to rail lines at our intermodal facility near the old Sony plant," he said. "These are hauling heavy equipment or steel bridge studs."

A new push for the project came last week at the annual dinner for the Economic Growth Connection, a nonprofit that concentrates on growth and helping businesses obtain funding. Executive director John Skiavo said the county must continue to lobby for the project. Golfer Arnold Palmer of Latrobe, a longtime member of the airport authority board, said the road improvement would be good for business at the airport and for businesses in the county.

One of the reasons Route 30 east of Greensburg is more congested is the addition of Spirit Airlines at the airport.

"We're going to have about 300,000 people a year going to the airport next year with the expansion of Spirit Airlines flights to Dallas," Mr. Courtney said. Spirit currently flies to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in Florida, and the number of passengers has steadily increased in the past two years.

"The authority wants to expand and build a new terminal with two new gates, and bring the tower into the new building," he said. It is applying for a $20 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to do that.

In addition, Mr. Courtney said, Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., is seeking grants for a second-phase expansion at the county's airpark.

"We're down to one lot left in phase one," Mr. Courtney said.

Mr. Skiavo said Mr. Rigone said it takes trucks at the airpark about 41 minutes to reach the New Stanton turnpike interchange using Route 30. Officials hope a new Laurel Valley connector along Route 981 would cut that travel time to 18 minutes.

Mr. Skiavo said accidents and slowdowns have occurred at the New Stanton turnpike interchange, including backups on the ramps.

"It is the busiest interchange in the state for truck traffic," he said.

Interstate 70, Route 119 and the Route 66 Amos Hutchison Bypass all intersect with the turnpike in that area.

"This project could improve the safety of those roads and ramps," he said.

Lobbying for the project

Mr. Courtney said the three commissioners and state and federal lawmakers or their representatives met at the airport Sept. 19 to discuss ways to get the project on the state's priority list for road projects and for federal and state funds.

The unresolved state transportation budget is a problem. PennDOT money for new road projects has been almost nonexistent in recent years.

Under Act 44, former Gov. Ed Rendell had planned to make Interstate 80 a toll road in the northern part of the state and use some of that revenue for transportation projects throughout the state. But the courts ruled that tolls from I-80, which was built with federal funds, could be used only for projects on I-80. As a result, PennDOT's current budget is used almost exclusively to maintain bridges and state roads.

"Of course, the elephant in the room [with the state transportation budget] is what to do about mass transit [in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia]," Mr. Skiavo said.

Deep service cuts to the Port Authority of Allegheny County were avoided last month when a new contract with its union was settled, but long-term state funding is still uncertain.

Mr. Skiavo said he understands from lawmakers that the state transportation budget will be a top priority after the beginning of 2013. A transportation task force appointed by Mr. Corbett in 2011 recommended increasing the state tax on oil for wholesalers and increasing fees for drivers.

The Turnpike Commission has its own financial problems, including significant debt. It has limited funds because of a 2007 law requiring $450 million of its annual revenues to go to the state for other road and bridge projects. And that debt has forced it to raise tolls substantially in recent years.

Cost of the connector

Originally, the road project was called the Laurel Valley Expressway and would have been a new four-lane highway from Blairsville along Route 22 to the New Stanton turnpike interchange. But the price tag was about $500 million.

This is a more doable project that could be completed in phases, county officials said.

Mr. Skiavo said the cost of a New Stanton interchange upgrade would be about $80 million. That price does not include the cost to upgrade state Route 981, which could include a bypass around one or two smaller communities, such as Pleasant Unity.

Mr. Skiavo doesn't believe the new private-public transportation law that Mr. Corbett recently signed would affect the Laurel Valley Connector. He doesn't see a private company getting involved.

"Most private companies are talking about tolling a road to recoup their cost of improvements. That isn't what we are talking about here," he said. "This would simply be an upgrade of a state road."

"We're going to get this," Mr. Courtney said. "It's not going to be quick; these PennDOT studies will take time -- they usually take a year or two. But I think we can look at 2015 or 2016."

Transportation - neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com


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