Hope rises for Mon-Fayette Expressway, Southern Beltway

| Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 12:21 a.m.

The final segment of the Mon/Fayette Expressway in Fayette County was opened last summer, marking 20 years of continuous construction on the expressway and Southern Beltway.

With the completion of the Uniontown-to-Brownsville project, three of the four Mon/Fayette sections have been opened to traffic, creating 60 continuous miles of new expressway from Interstate 68 in West Virginia to Route 51 in Jefferson Hills Borough.

But while no construction is planned for the expressway or beltway, work could resume within two years if the state Legislature approves transportation funding currently being considered, Turnpike CEO Mark Compton told The Valley Independent Monday.

Recently advanced out of the Senate Transportation Committee, Senate Bill 1 of 2013 – introduced by state Sen. John Rafferty, R-Collegetown – maintains a formula created in 1985 that allocates 14 percent of the oil franchise tax to fund turnpike expansion projects.

The bill also aims to raise the cap on the oil franchise tax, which currently is $1.25 of the price of a gallon of gas at the pump. The bill could more than double that amount.

The Rafferty bill would phase that tax in over three years. A similar proposal advanced by Gov. Tom Corbett would phase the tax in over five years.

“With the phased approach, it would not be unlikely to see shovels moved within 24 months,” Compton said.

One section of the expressway remains, albeit the most expensive portion. That would connect the existing link at Route 51 in Jefferson Hills with downtown Pittsburgh and Monroeville.

Compton was named CEO Feb. 1. New to the commission, he had been deputy secretary for administration for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for the past two years.

He was previously with Heavy Civil Construction, a highway contractor in eastern Pennsylvania.

Compton confirmed he is “getting up to speed” with the turnpike projects. Compton laughed as he said he the terms Mon/Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway “multiple times” from project supporters over the past three and a half months.

“I have a real sense that the public support is there for the projects,” Compton said.

“Look at the locations and the access. There's no question that those access points would be a key boost for the region's economy.”

Compton said the expressway and beltway definitely have a future.

“The next big step would be when the funding package is realized, hopefully this year,” Compton said. “When the cap on the oil franchise tax is lifted, it would fund Act 61 project, of which the Mon/Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway are major projects.”

Compton noted the Turnpike Commission would receive $80 million a year for expansion projects. Bonding that revenue would “conservatively” raise $600 million for new construction.

“That type of funding goes a long way in the next phase of the project,” Compton said.

Final design work is being done on the remaining segments of the expressway and beltway projects. But if the General Assembly approves new transportation legislation, these projects would be in line to take advantage of the money.

Although the expressway and beltway aren't the only Act 61 expansion projects, they are in line to receive significant money if the oil franchise tax cap is adjusted, he said.

“With the passage of the legislation, there is much more funding to consider for those projects,” Compton said. “Certainly, it makes these projects much more likely.”

Compton said the Route 22-to-Interstate 79 section of the Southern Beltway would likely be the first project ready for construction. Just one of three sections of the Southern Beltway has been completed, the Findlay Connector. The 6-mile Findlay Connector, which runs from state Route 60 to U.S. Route 22, was constructed and opened to traffic in 2006. It had a price tag of $238 million.

The Route 22-to-Interstate 79 section, as designed, would be roughly 13 miles.

No work has been done on the I-79-to-Mon/Fayette Expressway section, which would span 12.5 miles.

Construction on other segments of the highways are likely four years away, Compton said. New construction funding could revive a cycle of continuous work on the remaining sections of the two limited-access highways.

“Hopefully the funding is realized and we can continue down the path,” Compton said. “We need a little help right now from the General Assembly to get us some additional funds. From the things I'm hearing, I am feeling hopeful that something will get accomplished for all of transportation.”

Compton gave a message of hope for the Valley.

“We understand the importance of these projects and we'll work real hard to deliver them as expeditiously as we can, with the understanding the funding will need to be there,” Compton said.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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