Roughly $1 billion in funding has been secured to continue work on the Mon-Fayette Expressway from PA Route 51 to PA 837, the Pennsylvania Turnpike's top engineer said on June 1.
The first phase of the latest western Pennsylvania section of the highway is set to begin next year and last until 2027.
In the meantime, the turnpike commission is completing its work on the Southern Beltway, which connects U.S. Highway 22 in Findlay, west of Pittsburgh, to Interstate 79 near the Allegheny/Washington county border.
"We're going to be able to pivot quickly and begin work on this next part of the expressway," explained Turnpike Chief Engineer Brad Heigel at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Monroeville.
According to the Tribune-Review, several witnesses, from Heigel to Turnpike CEO Mark Compton, as well as local chamber of commerce presidents, touted the potential benefits of connecting the Monongahela Valley with Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs and western Westmoreland County.
The remaining work on the expressway is divided into seven sections, the first stopping at Camp Hollow Road near the Allegheny County Airport, with the goal of continuing to PA 837.
After that, Heigel noted that the Mon-Fayette would cross the Monongahela River and bring the expressway to where it would intersect with I-376 in Monroeville, and that adding an additional interchange would provide access to the U.S. 30 corridor.
"We're going to build from south to north, so we can open each section as it's completed," he said.
The Pittsburgh-based newspaper and online news outlet reported Heigel admitted that a funding source for the sections north of the Monongahela has yet to be found, but he estimated its cost as being around another $1.1 billion.
"If we are able to get some of the federal [American Jobs Plan] funding that may be available, it would go toward work on this northern section," he said.
Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, expressed his concerns that the money being discussed as part of President Biden's American Jobs Plan is the reason the expressway is back in front of legislators.
"This thing was stopped two or three times because it didn't make any sense," Haulk said. "Now there's some money available and they want it bring it up again."
The Tribune-Review reported that Haulk has been critical of the project for several years, including in a 2017 policy paper published by the institute.
"I don't think there's been a lot of consideration about what's going to happen when this is actually built, nor about the enormous disruption it's going to cause," he said. "We're having problems here already redoing existing roads and bridges."
State Sen. Jim Brewster, a McKeesport Democrat, said he sees the Mon-Fayette Expressway project and other transportation ventures, like western Pennsylvania's trail systems and public transit, as pieces of one large economic picture.
"When I see how far the trails have come in terms of completion, it's really impressive," Brewster noted at the hearing. "Places like Braddock and Rankin will be able to reinvent themselves for different reasons. And what we've done with mass transit, with the [Bus Rapid Transit program], what the county executive is doing with the Port Authority — all these things blend together to get people from one place to another, for work, for new businesses, for tourism."
The new section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway is estimated to create around 2,200 full-time construction jobs, and an additional 2,000 to 3,000 related trucking and support jobs, according to Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.
"We look at this project, as well as the extension of the East Busway, as a way of re-energizing a series of communities," Kelly said. "A lot of the studies talk about it relieving traffic, and sure, it does that. But it's true purpose is reinvesting in abandoned industrial sites."
The Tribune-Review noted in its reporting that several witnesses at the hearing mentioned the extensive remediation work done on about 1,000 acres of former brownfield industrial sites along the Monongahela River.
"When you look at riverfront development properties in the valley, it's almost the largest tract of nearly contiguous developable riverfront land in the lower 48 states," said Maury Burgwin, president of the Mon Yough Chamber of Commerce in McKeesport.
But he added that he does not see what a new toll road has to do with the development of riverfront property.
Sean Logan oversaw the start of the Mon-Fayette Expressway project when he was the chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. He now serves as president of the Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce.
He characterized the expressway's construction as a promise made more than a generation ago.
"It honors a commitment made several decades ago to the people and businesses of this region that they would not be forgotten," Logan said. "When I talk with businesses and companies interested in moving to the region, they all want to know about the Mon-Fayette Expressway. It has the potential to alter the course of, literally, the entire region."
Haulk, however, said the money would be better spent on improving existing roads in the Monongahela Valley.
"You could make the area more friendly to travel and truck traffic without spending billions on this expressway," he countered.
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