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Interstate 70 modernization projects to move highway into 21st century

Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:40 p.m.
 

A grassy mound in the backyard of Melvin “Bucky” Walkush's childhood home is the only visible reminder of the popular carhop restaurant that served the best pizza he's ever tasted.

It was the 1950s. Elvis topped the charts. Ike was in the White House. The Ford Thunderbird was one of the hottest cars around.

And the New 71 Barbeque along old state Route 71 in North Belle Vernon, owned by Walkush's brother Joe and his wife, Adeline, was the place to stop for anyone using the highway linking Greensburg and Washington, Pa.

The restaurant is gone now, and the stretch of Route 71 that Walkush, 84, remembers was decommissioned in the 1960s to become part of Interstate 70 between New Stanton and Washington.

The kids in hot cars have been replaced by tanker trucks hauling water to Marcellus shale gas drilling sites and by tractor-trailers carrying everything from furniture to livestock and luxury cars.

Over the years, though, little else has changed about the narrow, winding road.

“It's a 52-mile stretch of highway with 21 interchanges, but if you look across the state, it's probably the most dysfunctional ... (stretch) we have in Pennsylvania because of how narrow it is,” said Joe Szczur, district executive for PennDOT District 12, which covers Westmoreland, Fayette, Washington and Greene counties.

“If you've driven on it, it's such an old-fashioned section of highway,” Szczur said. “Some of the interchanges are controlled by stop signs. That's not a good thing.”

And that's why PennDOT expects to finish putting a series of projects out for bid by 2017 to reconfigure interchanges, repair bridges and widen the highway. The total cost for the work has not been determined.

The changes are being driven, in large part, by safety concerns, Szczur said.

Accidents on I-70 increased nearly 200 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to PennDOT records. And when those accidents happen, traffic grinds to a halt for hours as rescue workers navigate the road's razor-thin lanes hemmed in by steep hillsides and livestock pastures.

I-70 travelers taking a break recently at the Sheetz convenience store in New Stanton told war stories, calling the New Stanton-to-Washington corridor unlike any other part of the interstate, which begins near Baltimore and ends in central Utah.

“I'll go 40 miles out of my way to avoid it,” said Rich Maier of Pittsburgh, who drives on I-70 for his job with a roofing company. “The road is horrible.”

The plan

PennDOT plans to spend $50 million next year to make the highway three lanes in both directions around New Stanton and to reconfigure the interchange “to correct all the safety and congestion issues there,” Szczur said.

Other major projects include:

• A $57 million project for major work at the Murtland Avenue interchange in South Strabane. The project will involve improving ramps and adding a third lane leading to Interstate 79. Work could begin in the fall.

• A makeover of the Bentleyville interchange. Work will involve building a roundabout at Exit 32B, providing a wider median and longer acceleration and deceleration lanes on ramps, and replacing several bridges. The $60 million to $70 million project is slated to begin in 2015.

• A $39 million project that began in fall 2011 and is set to be completed in October. The work involves revamping the Interstate 70/79 interchange, known as South Junction in Washington County, not far from the more than 600-acre Southpointe business park.

Other projects, such as a $27 million widening project at Smithton, have been completed.

Not what was envisioned

Federal interstates were built primarily for long-distance travel, providing a backup to the nation's railroad network in the 1950s and '60s, said David Schellinger of Stantec, an engineering firm involved in traffic projects across North America.

Although planners made traffic volume projections, cultural shifts threw off those estimates, he said.

Today's computer models take into account household demographics and facilities such as stadiums, casinos and shopping centers, he noted.

“The 1960s models never envisioned the emergence of two-worker households,” Schellinger said.

Furthermore, planners did not realize drivers eventually would use interstates for their daily commutes.

“Interstates allowed you to travel more distance in the same time. They became congested, and now they have a lot of intra-regional travel,” Schellinger said.

Shifting landscape

Few saw the burgeoning Marcellus shale natural gas industry coming 10 years ago. It now employs about 15,500 people in Beaver, Greene and Washington counties — a 440 percent increase since 2009 — and I-70 bears the brunt of the traffic from drilling sites. The industry has pumped more than $3.7 billion into Pennsylvania's economy through taxes, fees and infrastructure investments, according to industry figures.

“We embraced energy. Now we're home to six of the major energy companies in this region involved in the natural gas industry,” said Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

The debut of casino gambling at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in 2007, as well as restaurant, shopping and hotel properties nearby are among the reasons Washington County's population has grown by 2.4 percent in the past 10 years and traffic on I-70 has increased by as much as 25 percent, depending on the area, according to PennDOT and federal census data.

“Commercial and industrial development — those are things you cannot foresee — you just have to react to (them),” Kotula said. “Some things, especially roads, take some catching up. ... That's just really part of our economic progress in Washington County.”

Across the Monongahela River in Westmoreland County, the allure of low taxes drew more housing developments during the past 15 years, and hotels and big-box stores moved into Rostraver Township as it grew into a bedroom community for Pittsburgh commuters and a lodging destination for Marcellus shale workers, said Patrick G. Egros, president of the township board of commissioners.

“(Rostraver) is still more or less a country setting, and (workers) are away from all the havoc in the evening,” Egros said. “They come home, kick back, sit on their back porch.”

For the most part, the quiet days along what was once state Route 71 are gone. Bucky Walkush can sit in his North Belle Vernon home overlooking Interstate 70 and hear the rumble of traffic day and night.

When it's quiet, he knows there's been a crash and the road is shut down.

Only then is it “like it used to be in the old days,” Walkush said.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com. Staff writers Jacob Tierney and Richard Gazarik contributed to this report.

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