Sean Logan, a former mayor of Monroeville and state senator for the eastern suburbs, has this vision for rejuvenating the Mon Valley: building the 14-mile extension of the Mon-Fayette Expressway from Jefferson Hills to Monroeville and extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway from Rankin to an expressway interchange in East Pittsburgh or Turtle Creek, spurring economic development along both projects.
As chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Mr. Logan is in position to make the $1.6 billion highway project happen. The commission has issued $108 million worth of design and engineering contracts since it revived the project last summer, and next month it will begin contacting about 1,000 property owners who might be in the path of the highway as the agency develops a revised Environmental Impact Statement.
And Allegheny County’s Port Authority has begun a feasibility study on extending the busway to dovetail with the expressway construction.
“It’s in our sights,” Mr. Logan said last week. “This is the first time we’ve had the money in place. Absolutely we will be able to do this.”
Construction on the expressway began in 1973 in northern West Virginia and 60 miles have been completed, ending in Jefferson Hills. From there, the goal had been to build a Y-shaped extension taking one end to Monroeville and the other to Pittsburgh, but design work was suspended in 2009.
Now, the project has been revived, minus the leg into Pittsburgh.
“It was an unaffordable engineering nightmare and there was no political will to do it,” Mr. Logan said, citing the cost of nearly $4 billion and opposition from former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and Oakland businesses and institutions.
Those plans would have caused substantial disruption to several Mon Valley towns along the way, including East Pittsburgh, Braddock and Rankin, as well as the city’s Hazelwood neighborhood.
The revised plans eliminate that section. Additionally, the section from Jefferson Hills to Monroeville has been streamlined by reducing the median from 60 feet to 26 feet and redesigning a bridge in the Duquesne area.
Those cost reductions, as well as technology changes that will allow cashless tolls, and additional funds from the state transportation bill passed in late 2013 make the project affordable, Mr. Logan said. The new design also will make less of a footprint in Turtle Creek and Wilkins, where officials weren’t happy with the original plans.
“It’s a different road than when it was originally designed,” Mr. Logan said. “This is a different time. It will be much less intrusive on those communities.”
Mr. Logan sent letters to political leaders in all of the communities on Dec. 30 telling them that some of their residents will be hearing from the turnpike soon. He also has been talking it up at community meetings such as last week’s Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments.
Public meetings to discuss the new design should begin this summer with a goal of beginning two years of construction in 2020. The project will be broken into two pieces: Jefferson Hills to Duquesne for $728 million, and Duquesne to Monroeville for $889 million, overall about $800 million lower than the original cost for that leg.
Mr. Logan sees the project as key to revitalizing the Mon Valley and eastern suburbs such as Monroeville and Penn Hills. He said it will offer a longer but less-congested alternative to the Parkway East for motorists headed for Pittsburgh International Airport.
Airport access was a major issue in 2010 when the Westinghouse Energy Center relocated from Monroeville to Cranberry, Mr. Logan said. It continues to be a problem as the municipality tries to market the 500,000-square-foot site for redevelopment.
“Others have looked at that site,” he said. “The chief reason some of these companies didn’t put us on their short list is access to Pittsburgh International Airport. This piece will finally give an alternative to the airport.”
Instead of the highway leg to Pittsburgh, Port Authority is taking early steps to provide additional access through public transit via an extension of the East Busway. The reconstruction of the Kenmawr Bridge in Rankin, scheduled for 2017, is designed to accommodate such an extension.
Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean said the agency has begun a feasibility study to extend the busway to a Mon-Fayette interchange in Turtle Creek and East Pittsburgh, perhaps with an adjacent parking garage.
“[The highway extension] certainly would support our goal of extending the busway to Turtle Creek and maybe Monroeville later,” she said. “It’s a primary project for us — extending the East Busway. Finding funding is also a primary project for us.”
Despite Mr. Logan’s best efforts, not everyone is sold on the highway project.
“The expressway link from [Jefferson Hills to Monroeville] will complete the expressway project and provide needed access to Mon Valley brownfield development sites, businesses, and communities,” said longtime supporter Joseph Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, in a statement last week.
The Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group included the highway on its list of the 12 biggest highway boondoggles in the country. They suggested the money would be better used to fix the state’s many bridges and roads that need upgrades, build more biking trails and improve public transit.
Those suggestions make Mr. Logan bristle.
“What can we fix to improve access to Pittsburgh International Airport?” he asked. “Can we add a lane to the Parkway East? No, there’s no room.
“I’m not sure what we can fix to solve the problem of access to the airport. We need that, or this area will die.”
Ed Blazina: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1470.