After years of hold-ups and debate, a $666 million project to extend the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Southern Beltway between Interstate 79 and Route 22 in Washington County received unanimous support on Monday from Western Pennsylvania's regional planning commission.
“We need to think bigger as a region. We need to be aspirational, or we'll get what we've always gotten,” said Steve Craig, chairman of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and a Lawrence County commissioner.
The turnpike project is part of a larger, $4.7 billion proposal to address Western Pennsylvania's transportation needs during the next four years, starting on Oct. 1. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county planning agency, unanimously approved it.
Increased state funding from Pennsylvania's new transportation law beefed up the SPC's four-year plan. Approved every two years, the plan adopted in 2012 was $3.1 billion, down from $3.6 billion in 2010 and $4.2 billion in 2012.
Building the Southern Beltway will become the turnpike's biggest single project, said Brad Heigel, the agency's chief engineer. Construction of the 19-mile section of highway is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2016 and end in 2019.
Heigel said it will “open up the Marcellus shale region,” providing a better link between the industry's drilling and corporate hotbed in Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh International Airport. Royal Dutch Shell is considering building a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant north of the airport in Beaver County — a project that received another encouraging sign on Monday when the SPC approved adding a proposed Shell-funded road project to the four-year transportation plan in effect through Sept. 30.
The oil and gas giant is considering spending up to $90 million to relocate a portion of Route 18 and widen the highway near the would-be plant site in Center and Potter. Adding the project to the SPC's current transportation plan doesn't guarantee work will begin before Oct. 1, but work can't begin unless the project is included in the plan, officials said. Heigel said the Southern Beltway could open thousands of acres along the corridor for development.
“It will have a huge, positive impact on the Parkway West,” reducing congestion along the notoriously jammed-up highway, said PennDOT District 11 Executive Dan Cessna, whose district includes Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.
About 20,000 motorists a day are expected to use the new stretch of highway, Heigel said. The turnpike will decide by mid-2015 how it wants to proceed with the rest of the proposed Southern Beltway project, which originally called for extensions east of I-79 to the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the Parkway East.
The four-year plan adopted by the SPC sets aside about $2 billion for highway projects, $1.8 billion for transit, $586.7 million for interstate work and $359.3 million for the beltway.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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