Southern Beltway plan resurrected
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has reignited stalled plans for a $550 million Southern Beltway project to connect U.S. Route 22 and Interstate 79, prompting critics to question why an agency awash in debt is building it.
Proponents say it will alleviate traffic and spur development.
The long-talked about, and at times controversial, project would be a 12-mile, four-lane expressway to connect with the Findlay Connector. The road would let drivers on I-79 connect to Interstate 376 at Pittsburgh International Airport, bypassing much of the congested Parkway West.
The road would make it easier to reach parts of South Fayette and Cecil as well.
The commission awarded the first two contracts for the project last week. It will pay Miami-based CDR Maguire $15 million to manage construction. Mosites Construction Co. was awarded a $14 million contract to build a bridge over Route 22. Officials said the earliest the highway could be open is 2019 or 2020.
The commission has acquired more than 250 properties over several years to obtain rights of way for the highway.
“I'm not anti-progress, but don't take over 200 properties and let them languish for years. And then the Turnpike Commission sits there and raises tolls, and then is spending a half-billion dollars on the Southern Beltway when there's hundreds of bridges that need immediate remediation,” said Robert Lee, 71, of Cecil.
Lee owns three to four acres, where his horses graze, located near properties the state took, although the agency did not request any of his land.
“All this to support a vastly under-utilized airport. All you hear is how bad the Turnpike situation is, and now this. I don't mind the road — it's the taxpayer money,” he said.
Several elected officials, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, consider the road a vital link to development, and other residents in the area support it, saying it will give them greater travel access.
“This project is so critical for economic development, to get from Southpointe to the airport, for example. It also alleviates traffic. The Parkway West is becoming so congested with all the development out there,” Fitzgerald said. “This is not just for Allegheny County. This is really a tri-county benefit.”
The Turnpike Commission has about $9 billion in debt, although spokeswoman Renee Vid Colborn said about half of that is because a state law forces the agency to pay PennDOT $450 million annually through 2022. She said the newly passed transportation bill, which increased the wholesale gas tax and raised fees, helped the Southern Beltway to move forward. A lack of money had put the plan on hold for several years.
“It is anticipated that by year five (of the new law), the PTC will receive an additional $86 million from the oil franchise tax and that's why it's moving forward with the 22-to-79 portion of the Southern Beltway. Understand, that like in years past, the PTC moves forward with projects as funding becomes available,” she said in an email message.
Critics also point to the agency's checkered past. Six people with ties to the Turnpike are awaiting trial for an alleged bid-rigging and influence-peddling scheme.
Still, some landowners, such as John Kosky, 58, of South Fayette, say the highway will bring development.
“Our family has about 800 acres in the area, and the Turnpike is going to take 50 to 60 acres. We've been supportive of the Southern Beltway because it will be good for economic development,” said Kosky, who owns a contracting business. “Some people don't like to see development and highways. With a project like this, you're going to have people for it and people against it. The people in Cecil should look at what Southpointe has done for them and their tax base.”
Traffic counts on the first 6-mile leg of the beltway, the Findlay Connector, have been less than officials expected. Turnpike statistics show about 4,500 vehicles use that road daily, paying about $1.4 million annually in tolls. Turnpike studies predicted the Findlay Connector would average 12,000 vehicles a day.
Officials project traffic will double to 9,000 vehicles per day once the next leg opens. Portions of the Parkway West leading to the airport carry 45,000 to 55,000 vehicles per day. About 80,000 vehicles daily use the Fort Pitt Tunnel, PennDOT stats show.
Bernadette Puzzuolo, CEO of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the low traffic counts on the Findlay Connector but said once the road connects to I-79, traffic will increase.
“We think it's going to do a lot to alleviate traffic out here. From 79, traffic is always backed up heading toward the airport,” Puzzuolo said. “The whole section will be opened up to business.”
Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.