Turnpike panel says high costs imperil Mon-Fayette, Southern Beltway projects
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Soaring cost estimates and a lack of funding are jeopardizing completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway -- 110 miles of toll roads representing one of the nation's largest highway projects.
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission representatives disclosed just how serious the issue has become yesterday at a Washington County hotel where an "executive committee" of elected, agency and planning officials held one of its infrequent meetings.
When all of their estimates were totaled, the figure came to $5 billion to finish engineering, buy rights of way, and build the remaining 31 miles of the expressway and 26 miles of the beltway.
That latest estimate is about $1.4 billion more than last year's, in part because of a change in federal requirements for calculating cost estimates so that they more closely reflect actual costs. Officials say they have about $526 million remaining for the two projects.
"This is the first time we've had to say there's no funding to proceed further with segments of the project," said David Zazworsky, an engineer who has served from the start as the turnpike commission's overseer. "It's disappointing after we've worked so hard."
The news was not necessarily unexpected. Turnpike commission Chief Executive Officer Joe Brimmeier warned in December that money has become "a problem" and called upon the Legislature to decide whether to finish what it started two decades ago.
But the latest specifics were unnerving to some of the 100 attendees, including state Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar, who said he wanted "no stoppage whatsoever" on a 17-mile section in Fayette County and said he would oppose all state transportation funding measures until he receives a commitment for its completion.
Construction is under way on 10 miles near Uniontown, but it was revealed yesterday that plans for the final seven miles around Brownsville are being "shelved" indefinitely for the lack of $450 million.
Other dead-ends and complications emerged. Among them:
The $2.7 billion cost estimate that Mr. Brimmeier cited four months ago to finish a 24-mile, Y-shaped northern segment from Route 51 to Monroeville and Pittsburgh has now been upped to $3.6 billion. The new estimate complies with the new federal rules requiring estimates pegged to time of construction.
Even under the best-case scenario, construction will not start before 2010 and then it would be staged over six years. Design work is now about 30 percent finished. About $91 million has been spent and about $200 million is left in the budget, enough to finish design but not enough to acquire all 1,300 properties needed for the rights of way.
Although environmental clearances have been received for the 13-mile section of the Southern Beltway from Interstate 79 north of Canonsburg to Route 22 and the Findlay Connector, the Federal Highway Administration cannot issue a "record of decision" for the turnpike to go any further because of the funding problems.
New federal rules that went into effect in February require highway builders to demonstrate they have "reasonably available" funds before they can continue.
The Turnpike Commission is sidestepping the Highway Administration on another 13-mile section of the Southern Beltway between the Mon- Fayette Expressway south of Finleyville to I-79 to avoid needing another "record of decision." Instead, it's working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as its lead federal agency to secure such things as wetlands permits.
Besides having to overcome those obstacles, the combined cost estimates for the last two Southern Beltway segments has jumped from $800 million to more than $1.4 billion under the new federal reporting rules.
And although work isn't coming to a total stop, the four segments will soon be dropped off of the region's long-range transportation funding program "until funds become available," Mr. Zazworsky said.
A 35-mile section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the first six miles of the Southern Beltway are open, the latter being the "Findlay Connector" to Pittsburgh International Airport.
Turnpike officials revealed yesterday that $1.34 billion has been spent on the two toll road projects thus far and about $526 million remains available.
For the first time, officials broached the possibility of taking the money and "putting it all into one basket to finish one project," as Turnpike Engineer Frank Kempf put it, or continue to pursue all facets of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway in spite of the mushrooming financial obstacles.
They also spurned Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to lease the turnpike and use the proceeds to raise $900 million a year for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
"I think we can assume that if a concessionaire comes in, the possibility of (the firm) finishing the projects is very, very slim," Mr. Kempf said.
Mr. Zazworsky suggested a five-point plan to raise money for roads and bridges, including increasing motor vehicle fees, putting tolls on I-80, and raising the $1.25 cap on an oil company franchise tax that has gone unchanged for 25 years. A portion of the money could be used for toll roads expansion, he said, but the bulk would go to PennDOT for its own road and bridge needs.
He also said raising tolls at the rate of the Consumer Price Index would not place an unreasonable burden on turnpike customers.
"If adjusted for inflation last year, passenger cars would have to pay an extra 60 cents to go from Ohio to New Jersey," Mr. Zazworsky said, noting private firms that recently negotiated long-term takeovers of the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Turnpike are raising tolls.
No turnpike toll revenues have been used thus far to plan and build either the Mon-Fayette Expressway or Southern Beltway. However, the turnpike has been receiving 14 percent of a 55-mile increase in the state's oil company franchise tax since 1991 and a flat $28 million a year from vehicle registration fee increases since 1997.
The Turnpike has used this money to float long-term bonds to generate $1.9 billion.
First Published April 26, 2007 11:19 pm