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Westmoreland County residents list transportation improvements as top priority; more public input sought

| Wednesday, May 17, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Residents who participated in the early stages of a $250,000 effort to plan for Westmoreland County's future identified needs for better transportation, more jobs and the ability to retain and grow population as the top concerns.

Six months of workshops, surveys, interviews and information gathering was completed in April as part of the county's early work in drafting a comprehensive plan that officials hope will serve as a blueprint for growth.

Officials said the plan is necessary to reverse the county's declining population, which has dipped from about 370,000 in 2000 to less than 358,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Statistics show Westmoreland has the seventh-oldest population in Pennsylvania, as its median age of 41 in 2000 rose to 45 in 2010 and is predicted to be 51 in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of children in the county is projected to drop by about 13,000, or 15 percent, within five years.

Officials are looking for ways to lure more people to live and work here.

Planners will ask for more public input at a workshop May 31 at Westmoreland County Community College seeking specific goals and ideas as to how those issues should be addressed.

“This is really an opportunity for the public to literally write the plan. It's the purest way for the public to have a role,” said Brian Lawrence, deputy director of the county's planning office.

A series of public meetings conducted during the winter asked residents to identify areas of concern for the county. Those sessions, along with online surveys, garnered more than 4,000 responses.

Residents identified seven priorities for the county to address in the comprehensive plan: transportation enhancements, job creation, cures to an aging and dwindling population, better land use and regulations, more recreation opportunities, upgrading local business and residential communities, and the potential for consolidation of municipalities and public services.

“It surprised me that so many people wanted better public transportation. That was the No. 1 priority, by far,” Lawrence said.

The county transit authority is in the early stages of exploring potential changes to its service. There is no commuter rail service in the county.

Refining goals identified on May 31 will be the subject of future workshops, Lawrence said. The plan enters its third phase in August, he said. Officials expect to have a draft completed in December, with a final version ready for county commissioners to adopt in January.

Once completed, the comprehensive plan will replace a document crafted in 2005 that has had little impact during the past 12 years, officials said.

“If we don't look at some of these issues now, we're going to have to solve them through crisis,” said Chad Amond, president of the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce. “There is certainly a vision, but looking at issues we've identified, we have to act on (them) to find solutions.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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