Work has begun to widen and realign a section of Route 219 in Somerset County, a project that has been on the drawing board for 48 years.
Two Pennsylvania Department of Transportation contractors have started cutting down 270 acres of trees to clear the way for improvements to an 11.4-mile section of road from Meyersdale to just south of Somerset.
But an environmental group is hoping to stop the project, contending that its potential harm to an endangered bat species, streams and wetlands has not been properly reviewed.
In a filing this month with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mountain Watershed Association said the environmental review process has been flawed and called for another round of studies.
"There have been some significant natural resources impacts that were discovered after the final environmental impact study was completed" in 2005, said the association's Krissy Kasserman.
The group, based in Fayette County, said it is not opposed to the highway expansion. "We believe the proposal will create jobs, make substantial improvements to the infrastructure in Somerset County, and increase safety along the corridor," it said in a letter with its filing.
Ms. Kasserman said the group fears the project will disturb two hibernation areas of the endangered Indiana bat, populations of which already have been wiped out by a mysterious disease known as white-nose syndrome.
Also of concern is where the contractor will dump 4.5 million cubic yards of material it plans to excavate. Ms. Kasserman said PennDOT's permit application was vague about that issue.
She acknowledged that if the group prevails, the project likely will face further delays.
PennDOT is hoping to award a construction contract and begin work this season, but it must first obtain permits from the Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection, project manager Greg Illig said.
The corps recently reopened a public comment period, citing changes to the project that created additional environmental impacts. About 15 comments were received, and the corps is working with PennDOT to resolve whatever valid issues were raised in those submissions, said Scott Hans, chief of the regulatory branch.
"Our goal is sooner rather than later," he said of the process. "It could be a matter of a couple weeks, it could be a month or two." He said permit denials are rare.
The $305 million project calls for widening the road to four lanes and significantly straightening it out. It would connect at both ends with four-lane sections of the highway.
Construction is expected to take five years. If work begins this season, the road could open to traffic by fall 2017, Mr. Illig said.
A separate planned project calls for widening another 7-mile stretch of Route 219 south of Meyersdale, stretching to Interstate 68 in western Maryland. Some preliminary work was done several years ago, but PennDOT has been focused on the Meyersdale-Somerset segment, he said.
The improvements have been planned since Congress created the Appalachian Highway Development System in 1965 to promote economic growth in isolated areas. The Route 219 improvements have been stalled for years by a lack of funding.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, and U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey supported a recent change in federal law that allowed the project to be 100 percent federally funded. Prior to the change, the state was required to put up 20 percent.
"This project has been a long time in the making and it's great to see it finally getting off the ground," Mr. Shuster, R-Blair, said in an announcement of the start of timbering operations.
PennDOT has agreed to complete the timbering by March 31, while bats hibernate, to avoid felling trees after the bats start nesting in them for the spring.
It also has agreed to pay nearly $830,000 to the Indiana Bat Conservation Fund for protection of bat habitats elsewhere.