Revived Mon-Fayette Expressway plans have some residents on edge
July 24, 2016 12:00 AM
North Versailles resident Beverly Koch doesn't yet know if her house would be taken as part of updated plans for the final section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Beverly Koch has had this recurring nightmare for upwards of 40 years and now it’s back after a 10-year absence: Her childhood home in North Versailles may be among those taken if the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission builds the last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway from Jefferson Hills to Monroeville.
The commission has scheduled hearings early next month in its latest — and likely last — effort to build the final 14-mile stretch of the toll road. This $1.6 billion plan is a modified version of the one 10 years ago with a much narrower path and the elimination of a costly, unpopular wing that would have gone from Turtle Creek to Pittsburgh.
The meetings will be the first time residents learn whether the commission is likely to take their property. Mrs. Koch and her husband, Rick, know the sinking feeling that can come from that kind of meeting because their house was on the chopping block the last time around.
“If you had a red X on your house, you were gone,” Mrs. Koch recalled. “[Turnpike officials] were around the neighborhood and we knew it was coming. This time, we received a notice that they might be on our property, but we never saw them.”
The Kochs live in a quiet neighborhood on Spring Street, one of several small streets tucked in the hillside between Greensburg Pike and East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard. It’s a modest neighborhood with well-kept homes, the kind common throughout the Pittsburgh area with footprints of children such as Mrs. Koch in the cement sidewalk and neighbors living in houses previously owned by their grandmother, uncle or cousin.
From the Kochs’ garage, the Westinghouse Bridge on Route 30 is visible through the trees, with the Monongahela River beyond it. That’s significant because the Mon-Fayette extension would cross the river in Duquesne and pass under the Westinghouse Bridge on its way to interchanges at Business Route 22 and the Parkway East in Monroeville.
The previous, similar plan stalled under a cost of nearly $4 billion and opposition from Pittsburgh officials. The turnpike commission, under Chairman Sean Logan of Monroeville, revived a streamlined version of the project last summer.
The revised toll road would follow a similar plan that begins at Route 51 in Jefferson Hills and also has interchanges at Camp Hollow Road in Dravosburg, Route 837 in Duquesne and near East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard in Turtle Creek. But to cut costs, designers have reduced the median from 60 feet to 26 feet and redesigned a bridge near Duquesne.
Mr. Logan, a long-time proponent of the highway, last week stressed the revisions in the building plan.
“All I can say to those folks [who may be in the road’s path] is that the road in the past is not the road we want to build today,” he said. “It’s not as expansive, it’s not as wide. What property is going to be taken? I don’t know the answer to that yet.”
And turnpike finances have become an issue again.
Although Mr. Logan previously had announced the agency had a way to build the project on a pay-as-you go plan, the commission last week said it is reviewing every project to see whether the agency can afford it. Mr. Logan said debt service makes up $600 million of the agency’s annual $980 million budget and has asked the state Legislature to eliminate a $450 million annual payment it makes to PennDOT for public transit.
Without relief from those payments, scheduled to be reduced to $50 million a year in 2023, the agency may not build major projects like the Mon-Fayette Expressway, Mr. Logan said.
“I think if we don’t get some relief sooner rather than later, the future for this project is very bleak,” Mr. Logan said. “I would say the chances of it being revived in future years if it doesn’t move ahead now would be next to none.”
Mr. Logan said he expects turnpike engineers and financial experts to decide in 30 to 60 days which projects can move forward.
In the meantime, the agency plans a series of public meetings early next month, preceded by a private meeting with public officials in Monroeville Aug. 2. Some officials are anxious to see exactly where the highway would go and what property their communities would lose in this incarnation of the project..
Turtle Creek Mayor Kelley Kelley said she hasn’t seen the revised plans — “I feel a bit left out,” she said because she wasn’t on an advisory committee for the road — but she is against the highway. The original version would have wiped out the Penn Plaza shopping center on Route 130, one of the main commercial areas in the borough.
“To me, I think it has been very unfair that this has been held over our heads for 30 years,” Ms. Kelley said. “I don’t know whether it has kept businesses from coming in here, but I don’t know who would want to come in when their business might be taken or they’re going to have a highway 80 feet over their heads.”
In Wilkins, Commissioner Mike Boyd said the board passed a resolution last summer and sent the turnpike commission a letter opposing the highway. Previous plans had the highway going up Thompson Run Road behind Anchor Industries and Mr. Boyd said he hasn’t seen the new version yet.
“As far as property taken, we’re probably not going to lose as much as other communities,” Mr. Boyd said. “For other communities, there should be concern about the impact on their property base and their property values.”
With the Pittsburgh leg eliminated, Mr. Boyd said, the highway will offer little relief for those traveling away from the eastern suburbs but will bring additional traffic to already-congested local roads. He encouraged residents to attend the public meetings.
“I think it’s particularly important for residents to get out and speak their minds whether they have concerns or they are strongly in favor of this because this really hasn’t been a very public process,” he said. “This is their chance to be heard.”
And it’s the time when the Kochs learn the fate of their home, which would have been taken last time as collateral damage when roads under the highway were reconfigured. This time, who knows?
“At this time in my life, I don’t want to move,” said Mrs. Koch, who has lived all of her 61 years there. “It’s just disturbing that someone can come and say, ‘Your house is gone.’”
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.