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Pa. transportation bill may breathe life into Mon-Fayette Expressway project

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 4:35 p.m.
At the northernmost interchange of the Mon/Fayette Expressway in Jefferson Hills, motorists also can utilize an Express E-ZPass reader that can read the transponders in their vehicles -- or take pictures of the license plates so bills can be sent to the motorists who do not have E-ZPass.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
At the northernmost interchange of the Mon/Fayette Expressway in Jefferson Hills, motorists also can utilize an Express E-ZPass reader that can read the transponders in their vehicles -- or take pictures of the license plates so bills can be sent to the motorists who do not have E-ZPass.

Joe Kirk has been pushing for construction of the Mon/Fayette Expressway for a quarter century.

But the executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council believes he knows where the project would be without the new, though controversial, state transportation bill: dead in the water.

“It infuses new funds into the projects,” Kirk said. “Without this transportation legislation, there would be no new funds to advance the Mon/Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway.

“This breathed new life into these two projects.”

The state Turnpike Commission has identified nearly $500 million of the roughly $700 million needed to complete the beltway project through various state and federal sources. The new law could help provide the extra $200 million, Kirk said.

But the effort to push the expressway, which now runs from Interstate 68 in West Virginia to Large in southern Allegheny County, north was dead in the water before the new transportation legislation was adopted, Kirk acknowledged.

The bill, signed into law last week by Gov. Tom Corbett, removed the 12 cent per gallon retail gas tax, but uncapped the oil company franchise tax.

Opponents of the legislation have claimed the gas tax could rise by 28 cents per gallon over the life of the five-year law. PennDOT has maintained that makes assumptions on the wholesale price of gas over the final two years of the law.

Pennsylvania now has the 15th highest gas tax in the nation – a combined 32.3 cents per gallon on state and federal levies. New York is tops at 50.6 cents per gallon. If oil companies pass on the entire increase, Pennsylvanians would pay 41.8 cents per gallon for 2014, moving the state up to 5th highest in the country.

Kirk said the Progress Council will continue meeting with lawmakers from both the Mid-Mon Valley and Allegheny County, working in tandem with the Monroeville and Mon Yough chambers of commerce to lobby for advancement of the expressway from state Route 51 north.

The new transportation law maintains a formula first created in 1997 to set aside 12 percent of the increase in the oil franchise tax to fund the expressway and beltway projects.

Building the expressway into Monroeville and completing the Southern Beltway to connect the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport with the expressway will require about $2.2 billion in additional funds.

Kirk estimates the new transportation law's formula would create a little less than half of the needed funds to complete that work.

State Rep. Pete Daley, who voted against the bill, has been a vocal critic of the new law.

He said the state's transportation needs – including repairing 4,500 structurally deficient bridges – were further exacerbated by years of inaction by the Legislature. The California Democrat blames that delay on Republicans.

While it will bring an influx of funds into the region for area projects, much of the $2.3 billion in new revenues will go to other parts of the state, Daley said.

Half of the money raised in the new legislation will fund transit in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, he said.

Daley noted that with the expressway completed from West Virginia to southern Allegheny County, the next step is to take it north.

But Daley made it clear he wants to see it built toward Pittsburgh, not into Monroeville.

“There's not enough money to build the expressway over to Monroeville,” Daley said. “I'm all for getting the Mon/Fayette into Pittsburgh.

“Who the hell wants to go to Monroeville anyway? Taking it to Monroeville requires motorists to take the Parkway into Pittsburgh.

“I say run the Mon/Fayette along the original route to Hayes and then you could take the Glenwood Bridge to Pittsburgh.”

Daley said he plans to discuss construction priorities for the expressway with turnpike commission officials.

But Daley said he believes the benefits for this area, especially for advancement of the expressway, are outweighed by costs to consumers.

Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, voted for the transportation bill.

Solobay contended that as a member of the transportation committee, he understands the transportation funding shortfalls Pennsylvania faces.

Solobay said the increase in what consumers pay at the pump will be based on the fluctuation of the market for oil and gas. He said the increase in other fees facing motorists are slight, noting Pennsylvania is 39th in vehicle registration fees and 31st in driving license fees.

“When you look at overall waste of fuel because of detours and closures as well as the wear and tear on our cars, in the long run, I feel confident we're going to be saving money (under the new law,)” he said.

While a gas-tax hike is on the horizon, Solobay said he is working on a bill that would repeal the eco-friendly summer-grade of gas that Pennsylvanians must pump from May through September. Solobay claimed that blend hikes the price at the pump by 25 to 30 cents per gallon – more than the total hike included in the five-year transportation act signed into law last week.

And Solobay supported the idea that the transportation bill will help revive the expressway and Southern Beltway project.

“Getting this transportation bill passed was vital to getting the turnpike (commission) to advance the Southern Beltway and expressway,” Solobay said. “This plan and for years extended out, is going to make those projects a reality.

“Otherwise, those projects would have been on the shelf again.”

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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