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Mon Valley Progress Council chief is pushing an alternative plan.

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Monday, July 22, 2013, 5:27 p.m.
 

Forty years have passed since construction began on the Mon/Fayette Expressway, with hopes the toll road could revitalize economically depressed towns in Fayette and Washington counties by connecting Morgantown, W.Va., with Pittsburgh.

Nearly half a century later, outside factors like political opposition and lack of state funding have placed the expressway's conclusion – a final extension from Jefferson Hills to Pittsburgh – on life support.

So Mon Valley Progress Council executrive director Joe Kirk, one of the project's most vocal proponents, is trying to reach middle ground by completing the initial goals of the expressway while navigating through current financial constraints.

The initial plan, Kirk said, was to divide the final stretch into a “Y,” with final extension leading north to Pittsburgh and the other east to a section of the Parkway near Monroeville – an estimated $4 billion project.

Kirk is proposing an alternative plan that would eliminate the Pittsburgh connection while constructing a 13-mile completion from Jefferson Hills to the Parkway East by the Thompson Run corridor.

Also key in the proposal is extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, which would include a high occupancy vehicle lane.

Kirk recommends building a park-and-ride lot so commuters could opt to leave their cars at the end of the expressway and bus the rest of the way.

Operated by the Port Authority, the two-lane, bus-only highway runs approximately 10 miles from Swissvale to Penn Station in downtown Pittsburgh, with stops including East Liberty, Shadyside and Polish Hill.

“Facing the reality that additional funding is going to be hard to come by (for completion of the expressway into Pittsburgh,) the question becomes: How can we come up with an idea to accomplish the primary objective of the project?” Kirk said Sunday, adding initial estimates of his idea would be somewhere around $2.5 billion.

“I never gave up hope on the expressway,” he said. “It's not a matter of giving up hope. It's clear to me right now the financial resources are not there for what was proposed originally and it's imperative to come up with a solution.”

Kirk said his plan could not only bring the initial aims of the expressway to fruition but also would provide relief for the notoriously congested Parkway, particularly daily jams near the Squirrel Hill tunnel.

Other key objectives remain, such as providing access to brownfield sites, or former steel mill sites, for development. For the Mid-Mon Valley, Kirk said, the key benefits would be twofold – ensuring companies can receive and transport goods efficiently while allowing residents who work in the Pittsburgh area quicker and easier commutes.

“Let's say, for example, someone living in Monongahela works at a plant in McKeesport. Right now, that's not an easy commute,” Kirk said. “Try driving from Monongahela to McKeesport. I mean, go on Google Maps and try to find a route from Monongahela to McKeesport.”

The fifth goal, Kirk said, would be to promote economic stability and even additional growth in the Monroeville area, which is being choked off with traffic.

Kirk acknowledged his newest proposal still involves requiring consideration, let alone approval, from federal, state and local government bodies, and that he's just beginning formal introductions.

Kirk said he submitted a report to state Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch about a month ago and has not heard back as of yet,but noted that Schoch “has a lot on his plate.”

Any advancement of the expressway is dependent on broad transportation legislation by state officials, Kirk said. The key would be a transportation bill passing through the state House and Senate in the fall – and one with funding set aside for the Turnpike Commission.

Most of the expressway, which currently stretches from Interstate 68 near Cheat Lake in West Virginia to Route 51 in Jefferson Hills, is maintained by the Turnpike Commission.

“It's been 16 years since there's been a new transportation bill proposed, so it's not just a matter of advancing the expressway but other projects that have gone without significant investment,” Kirk said.

“We're hopeful for action on legislation this fall and part of this idea is to encourage such action, but we don't want to have to sit by and say ‘The project is too expensive' or ‘The project is on hold.'”

Kirk said he will work to set up meetings with “principal actors” on both the political and legislative sides, as well as rallying support from economic development groups up and down the expressway corridor.

“We do see this as a new start … to complete the whole project,” Kirk said.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

 

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