PA Puts Summer Deadline on Study of MFE Highway

Thu March 20, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Tracy Carbasho

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) expects to unveil the results of its environmental impact study for the most complicated section of the Mon/Fayette Expressway (MFE) by this summer.

Thomas Fox. public involvement manager of the commission, said approximately 35 mi. (56.3 km) of the toll road have been completed and are now operable. Upon completion, the expressway will span approximately 80 mi. (128.7 km) and connect I-68 near Morgantown, WV, to the Parkway East (I-376) at Pittsburgh and nearby Monroeville, PA. The cost of the entire expressway is estimated at $3.3 billion.

A 17-mi. (27.4 km) section of the MFE through Pennsylvania from I-70 North in Washington County to Route 51 in Jefferson Hills was opened in April 2002 as the first extension of the roadway into Allegheny County, PA.

Connecting, Route 51 to the Parkway East with 24 mi. (38.6 km) of concrete is considered by the PTC to be the longest and most complicated part of the expressway at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. The commission hopes to publicize the results of its environmental impact study for this segment before summer.

However, final design and property acquisition could take four years to complete from the time the Federal Highway Administration grants approval to proceed and another decade could pass before this portion of the expressway is opened to traffic. Fox said the administration is expected to grant its approval to proceed by the end of this year.

“By the end of 2004, all of the MFE projects will probably be in final design, which would end a decade of us trying to move the project forward,” said Fox. “The longest process is putting together the environmental impact studies and getting authorization from the Federal Highway Administration to proceed with each section.”

The projects included in the MFE are being done in conjunction with construction of the $896-million Southern Beltway in Pennsylvania. The 30-mi. (48.3 km) Southern Beltway was added to the list of new roads to be built by the turnpike commission in 1991

Fox said the completed Southern Beltway, which features three stand-alone projects, would shoot off the MFE going west from Union Township in Washington County to I-79 at the Washington-Allegheny County line and proceed to U.S. 22 between the Champion and Bavington interchanges with a final destination point at the State Route 60 expressway near the Pittsburgh International Airport.

“The MFE and Southern Beltway projects together promise to increase safety, access, capacity and support for economic development efforts,” said Fox. “Economic development is not necessarily the commission’s objective, but we support the efforts in the areas where the road passes through. Officials in those areas can use the infrastructure to address the specific economic development needs of their communities.”

Fox said discussions about building the MFE date back to the late 1940s and originated in the Mon Valley communities of Monongahela, Cherleroi and Monessen. However, decades passed before any official action was initiated.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly approved legislation in 1985 assigning the expressway project, along with many other new highways in the state, to the turnpike commission. The formal planning process for the MFE projects got under way in the summer of 1992.

The expressway that has been decades in the making and is still many years from completion has been described as both an economic necessity and a dead-end road to nowhere. There is general consensus about the need for transportation improvements in Pennsylvania, but a difference of opinion about whether a toll road is the best answer.

“Completion of the expressway is critical to the economic development of southwestern Pennsylvania because it provides access to the industrial sites of the Mon Valley that were abandoned by the steel industry more than 20 years ago,” said Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey. “These sites, if accessible by highway, will then have road, rail and waterway access. The sites are essentially flat and represent ideal locations for the development of manufacturing and industrial facilities. There are no other outlaying sites that offer the same advantages as the abandoned mill sites.”

Groups such as the Monessen-based Mon Valley Progress Council (MVPC) said the MFE will promote much-needed economic vitality, while the Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) organization believes that improving the existing transportation system is a better alternative.

Joe Kirk, executive director of the MVPC, said the Route 51 to I-376 link will reduce traffic congestion, promote redevelopment in the corridor communities and provide enhanced access to:

• 715 manufacturers that employ 25,000 workers;

• Intermodal commerce; and

• 1,500 acres (607 ha) of brownfield development sites.

“Southwestern Pennsylvania lags behind a lot of areas in the United States because of its lack of an adequate highway network,” said Kirk, “We need to offer a network comparable to those offered in other cities. With increasing traffic congestion in our region, there is a major question as to whether our current transportation system could even support a major surge in economic growth. Without question, we need to develop both additional highway and mass transit capacity.”

Joan Miles, outreach coordinator of PennFuture, has a different opinion about the toll road. She believes the MFE is likely to further drain the Mon Valley communities of investment opportunities.

“Our study [titled ’A Truly Dismal Use … ’] concludes that the toll road will provide a high-speed bypass of these towns to open space preferred by developers,” said Miles. “Such development siphons business away from established town centers and will decrease, not increase, the competitive advantage of these struggling communities. To make matters worse, as we add new feeder roads, water lines, sewers and other infrastructure to support outlying development, we stretch the scarce tax dollars needed to maintain our built environment ever thinner.”

PennFuture presented the turnpike commission with its “Citizens’ Plan” last year in direct opposition to the proposed 24-mi. (38.6 km) section from Route 51 to the Parkway. Fox said the commission hopes to complete its evaluation of the alternative proposal by the end of spring. However, Miles said PennFuture officials have received no direct indication from the commission that their plan is being considered.

The “Citizens’ Plan” created by PennFuture proposes the creation of a 62-mi. (99.8 km) network of urban boulevards within the Mon Valley, improved connections to interstate highways, which would increase mobility of vehicles that transport goods to outside markets, and three major new transit investments to reduce traffic congestion and increase real estate values in the affected Pittsburgh communities.

However, Kirk does not believe the PennFuture plan adequately addresses congestion on the Parkway East and would not provide proper access to economic development sites.

Sustainable Pittsburgh (SP) has stated its support for improved transportation access in the Mon Valley by presenting the commission with its “Sustainability Assessment of the Northern Sections of the Mon/Fayette Expressway.” SP’s analysis shows each section of the expressway has varying development and transportation needs that must be considered by the commission.

Court Gould, executive director of SP, said his organization urged the turnpike officials to consider alternatives as required by federal law, keeping in mind the transportation, economic, environmental, land use and community impacts associated with the MFE.

“Let’s hope the Federal Highway Administration holds fast to the intent of the law and calls for the supplemental study needed to fully assess and justify that this mega infrastructure expenditure enhances and sustains livable communities,” said Gould.