$550 million Southern Beltway project launches for Pennsylvania Turnpike

Tom Fontaine
| Monday, May 12, 2014, 11:44 p.m.

When the second leg of the Southern Beltway opens in five years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike will have spent $788 million to build 19 miles of highway that it anticipates just 7,500 motorists will use daily.

Turnpike officials and government leaders from both parties, including Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, consider it a wise investment. They insist the 13-mile second section connecting Interstate 79 and Route 22 in Washington County will help spur economic development and ease congestion across the region.

“This is a project we've all been anxious to see happen,” state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said on Monday at a ceremony marking the start of the $550 million project.

But Jake Haulk, president of the Castle Shannon-based Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, called the traffic forecast “peanuts.” He thinks the money for the segment would be better spent trying to eliminate bottlenecks on the Parkway East and Parkway West through measures such as road widening or building toll lanes for express traffic.

Up to 85,000 vehicles a day use the Parkway West, and up to 73,000 use the Parkway East daily, according to PennDOT data.

The Southern Beltway will let motorists from I-79 near the Allegheny County line with Washington County get to Pittsburgh International Airport without using the often congested Parkway West. It will extend the first Southern Beltway leg, which opened in 2006. Known as the Findlay Connector, the six-mile, $238 million section extends from I-376 near the Findlay airport to Route 22.

Turnpike data show the Findlay Connector is used by about 3,750 vehicles a day, a fraction of the 12,000 average daily vehicles that traffic studies predicted. The agency predicts the opening of the Southern Beltway's second leg will immediately double that traffic.

“I would have thought the real traffic problems were on the Parkways, not from people trying to get between Washington County and Pittsburgh International Airport,” Haulk said.

Although the Southern Beltway project was conceived in the 1980s, Corbett says it has taken on added importance in recent years with growth in Washington County and the emergence of the natural gas industry.

Many natural gas companies and related businesses are based in the sprawling Southpointe business park along I-79 in Cecil. The region is vying for a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in Beaver County.

“Access back and forth between the areas will be considerably shortened,” Corbett said.

The Southern Beltway project had been on hold for years. The $2.3 billion transportation funding package lawmakers adopted last year breathed life into it.

Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said the transportation package will increase funding for such “capacity-adding” projects from $18 million to $20 million annually to about $100 million a year.

Compton said it remains unknown how, or whether, the turnpike will be able to complete the third and final leg of the Southern Beltway — a 12.5-mile, $750 million section connecting I-79 and the Mon/Fayette Expressway. Also uncertain is whether work to finish the Mon/Fayette Expressway between Route 51 in Jefferson Hills and the Parkway East will proceed. It has an estimated price tag of about $4 billion.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike awarded the first two contracts for the Southern Beltway project in January. It is paying Miami-based CDR Maguire $15 million to manage construction and Mosites Construction Co. $14 million to build dual bridges that will carry the Southern Beltway over Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County.

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

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