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Last leg of Mon-Fayette Expressway OK'd

| Monday, June 26, 2017, 6:33 p.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Motorists start their journey south on the Mon-Fayette Expressway at Jefferson Hills.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission will include the last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway project in its long-range plan.

The regional body on Monday voted 47-4 to include the controversial 14-mile extension in the plan, with three representatives from Pittsburgh-area groups and one from Butler County voting against it.

The expressway, estimated to cost $2.2 billion, would connect Route 51 in Jefferson Hills with Interstate 376 near Monroeville — the last stretch in a decades-long effort to link I-376 to I-68 near Morgantown, W.Va.

The commission tabled the decision in March to see if the funds could be used on other projects to help revitalize the Mon Valley — an effort led by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

The Turnpike Commission said the funds could not be used for other projects in the region unless state lawmakers passed legislation to allow it.

Fitzgerald traveled to Harrisburg to talk to the General Assembly about the idea, and some were on board, he said, but a bill was never introduced.

“We found out from the Turnpike Commission that if we don't use this money… it will be sent to the other end of the state,” said Fitzgerald. “While I still believe there are probably better uses … I will be supporting this project at this point to move forward.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilman Ricky Burgess were absent from the meeting.

The three Pittsburgh representatives who participated in the vote were opposed to the project's inclusion in the plan. They included Aurora Sharrard, executive director of Green Building Alliance; Mavis Rainey of the Oakland Transportation Management Association; and Scott Brickner, executive director of BikePittsburgh, who voted by phone.

Sharrard voiced concerns with the information the Turnpike Commission provided, including projected employment and economic development figures.

“My concern is we're going to get two legs of road that are never going to be connected,” said Sharrard. “Thirty years from now, people are going to be saying ‘this was a boondoggle project' because we did not hold the people who were offering us something accountable for what they would deliver.”

David Miller, a University of Pittsburgh professor and an Allegheny County representative on the SPC, also voiced concerns with the Turnpike Commission's information, but ultimately voted in favor of the project.“I want to make sure we are clearly putting the Turnpike Commission on notice that we are going to be much more demanding of them in the future than we have in the past,” Miller said.

Kim Geyer, a Butler County commissioner, voted against the project, citing a letter 11 state legislators sent SPC members earlier this month that stated the project was no longer eligible for Turnpike Commission funds.

Doug Smith, SPC transportation planning director, said the project was indeed eligible for the funds.

Leslie Osche, also a Butler County commissioner, said she was disappointed the Southern Beltway, connecting the expressway with Pittsburgh International Airport, would not be completed until after the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

The Wilkins Township Commission voted unanimously against the project, Commissioner Michael Boyd told the SPC, due to concerns of displacement, air and noise pollution.

Groups that spoke in favor of the project were from the Mon Valley Chamber of Commerce, West Mifflin borough, Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce and the Mon Valley Alliance.

The Turnpike Commission paid $16 million to consultants in the last two years for design, traffic projections and environmental work for the project — work that has been on hold from the March meeting until now, Smith said.

The vote is important because the Federal Highway Administration cannot approve an environmental impact statement — a requirement for construction — unless the project is included in the SPC's plan.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669.

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