Decision expected in June on fate of Mon-Fayette Expressway's last leg
April 17, 2017 12:00 AM
This 1999 file photo shows construction of the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Carroll, Washington County.
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Over the past 40 years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has spent nearly $120 million on design, redesign, environmental impact statements and other elements for the proposed last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway.
That 14-mile segment from Jefferson Hills to Monroeville, which has a revised completion estimate of $2 billion, was put on hold last month by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. The planning commission will decide in June whether the project continues or gets placed back on the shelf, where the former turnpike commission chairman predicted last year it would die.
As far as the turnpike commission is concerned, the decision on whether the project continues is out of its hands. On this project, the commission works as a management group and does what regional planners and the state Legislature authorize.
“It’s not like we have a choice whether to do this,” turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said. “We were obligated by the Legislature to do what we needed to do. Clearly, we’ve met our obligation.”
Last week, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he would drop his opposition to the project since the money can’t be transferred to other regional transportation needs. But the final decision will be made by the 10-county regional planning commission, where officials from outside the Mon Valley have questioned the need for the highway.
The process of building the full highway, which begins in northern West Virginia, started in 1973, before the decline of the steel industry. More than 40 years later, the first 60 miles have been built to Jefferson Hills at a cost of $1.68 billion.
But the last leg — considered a key to rebuilding the Mon Valley’s economy — has been stuck in political and funding inertia.
Fifteen years ago, the design included a “Y” from Duquesne, with one branch going to Monroeville and the other to Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River valley. But then-Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, along with Oakland businesses and institutions, fought against the $4 billion project, so it was suspended in 2009 for lack of support and funding.
With the passage of a state transportation funding bill in 2013, then-turnpike chairman Sean Logan — a former mayor and state senator from Monroeville in 2013 — revived it. The commission issued more than $108 million in new contracts and last year unveiled a new design that eliminated the Pittsburgh wing and scaled down the medians to cut the cost in half.
“This is the first really reasonable financial proposal,” said Brad Heigel, turnpike chief engineer who is overseeing the project.
Mr. Heigel said the commission spent $110.4 million on the project before it stalled in 2009. Since then, it has spent another $6.3 million through the end of 2016 to scale back the design and purchase one small piece of property in Jefferson Hills that came on the market at a reasonable price, among other items, he said.
Although the commission issued $108 million in contracts when the project restarted, those contracts always allow the agency to cancel if the remainder of a project stalls for any reason, Mr. Heigel said.
“When we reinstituted the project, we kind of had to take a step backwards with the design,” Mr. Heigel said. “We were just getting to the expensive parts. The heavy lifting was still coming. Better we know now rather than later that we should stop.”
One element updated since 2009 is the economic benefit projections for the project. Consultant 4Ward Planning, which has several offices including one in Pittsburgh, estimated the highway would generate 3,385 direct and indirect full- and part-time jobs in industry from 2027 to 2030; 4,008 office jobs; and 2,274 retail and restaurant jobs generating a total of $135 billion in economic output over three years.
The commission has heard complaints from a lot of residents whose property has been in the path of the highway for decades and who just want the issue resolved one way or the other.
“It’s not unusual for these massive public works projects to be put on hold,” Mr. DeFebo said. “I can see the frustration of the public. We’re talking about several billion dollars here, so [regional planners] should be sure whether they want to go ahead.”
Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.
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