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Turnpike to build $632 million Southern Beltway extension

| Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, 12:10 p.m.

Six years after completing the first leg of the Southern Beltway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission said on Friday it plans to build a section in a $632.5 million project scheduled to begin in 2014.

The 13-mile stretch of toll highway would connect Interstate 79 at the Washington-Allegheny county line to Route 22 in Robinson in Washington County, where the first leg from Interstate 376 ends. Officials expect construction to last six years.

Commission Chairman William Lieberman said the project “will help ease congestion on arteries like the Parkway West, I-79 and U.S. Route 50,” while providing access to 4,000 acres of undeveloped land.

State money, bonds and federal loans will pay for the project, officials said. No toll revenue will be used, officials said. Turnpike spokeswoman Renee Vid Colborn could not provide a breakdown of the funding sources or explain how the commission would repay bonds without using toll revenue.

The turnpike's debt has tripled to $7.8 billion since legislators passed a 2007 law requiring the agency to provide $450 million a year to PennDOT to help it pay for road, bridge and transit projects. The turnpike borrowed money and is raising tolls annually to meet the burden.

“That is an anchor around the turnpike's neck,” said Frank Gamrat, a senior research associate at the Castle Shannon-based Allegheny Institute on Public Policy, a conservative policy group.

“Infrastructure is always a good thing, and I'd be all for this project, but this is an agency that is swimming in debt. Is this something they can afford to take on now? I'm afraid the answer is no,” Gamrat said.

Gamrat questioned whether there would be enough demand for new, developable land to justify the high expense. “I don't know if I buy into the ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come' mentality,” he said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald believes demand will happen. He cited the proximity of the highway and surrounding land to Pittsburgh International Airport, a proposed $4 billion petrochemical plant in Beaver County, and the region's emerging Marcellus shale industry, including drilling at the airport that is expected to generate more than $250 million in up-front money and royalties for the Airport Authority and county.

“All of that will be a big draw for companies and development,” Fitzgerald said.

State Sen.-elect Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, said: “The immediate benefits of this project to our region are unmistakable (with) the projected creation of 20,000 full- and part-time jobs and a total impact to the state's economy of nearly $2.7 billion,” citing turnpike projections.

The turnpike opened the first section of the Southern Beltway in 2006. Known as the Findlay Connector, the six-mile, $238 million leg extends from I-376 near Pittsburgh International to Route 22.

In the early going, Findlay Manager Gary Klingman said he heard grumbling about the connector being a “road to nowhere,” but it helped spur development of a business park with three buildings and plans for two more. Another business park is scheduled to get under way next year, and a commercial subdivision with room for up to 10 buildings is in the works.

Klingman said traffic grew steadily, from about 4,400 vehicles a day in 2009 to about 5,300 daily vehicles through the first 10 months of this year.

The beltway's proposed third leg would go from I-79 to the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Finleyville, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh. That 12.5-mile leg is expected to cost $700 million, but an alignment or funding plan isn't set.

The turnpike said it spent $50 million to acquire land for the planned second leg. That work is ongoing.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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