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Roadwork skewers Route 22 Cheese House

| Thursday, July 28, 2011

In 1993, PennDOT started a construction project on Route 22 in Westmoreland County.

And finally, last week, PennDOT officials celebrated the end of that project with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in nearby Blairsville.

PennDOT District 12 executive Joe Szczur said there is still the small matter of resurfacing an area of the road from Indiana County to Route 119, but said it is only cosmetic work.

So, at the "close enough" ceremony, there was a lot of back-slapping over the 25.25-mile project that took 18 years to complete, although it was on a 12-year plan. Six years late• Not that bad.

The completion might have come too late for Sheri Varrato. Her business, the Cheese House, sits along Route 22 in Blairsville. It's been known over the years for its varieties of cheeses and a winery attached to the store. Since the beginning of the work in her area four years ago, business has been horrible, she said.

"This last year has been the worst -- there was no traffic on our side of the highway," she said.

Now that the traffic is back to normal, another problem has surfaced. Cars and trucks zip by at 70 mph just 12 feet from the front door of her store, according to Varrato. That means there's precious little room for potential customers to pull over, and indeed, most don't realize the store is there until they've already passed it.

No one, including Varrato, is arguing that the work didn't need to be done. Before, Route 22 was mostly two lanes, with a center lane used for passing slower traffic and for making turns, a nightmare for drivers. Now, it's four lanes.

"I do like the fact that the highway is safer," she said.

But she has another safety concern: There's very little room for error in case there's an accident.

"If someone comes off the road, they're in our building," she said, expressing disbelief that the arrangement passed any safety tests.

Part of the reason the project took so long, Szczur said at the ceremony, was securing the right-of-way privileges from businesses along the road, and taking care of displaced businesses and homeowners. Varrato had expected that she'd be among the businesses that would have to move. But PennDOT bypassed the store, although it secured the property right up to it.

"It's left us unable to do business. They should have taken our business," she said.

PennDOT press officer Jay Ofsanik did not return a call seeking comment about the Cheese House.

The end of the construction doesn't leave Varrato hopeful. She's doing nowhere near the business she did four years ago. She looked into the possibility, but found that there's no loss-of-business claim she can file against PennDOT. So, she's bracing herself for the closing of a business that's existed for more than 40 years. She's also bracing for the first bad snowstorm, which she envisions will leave the Cheese House practically buried once the roads are cleared.

"I do not expect we will make it through the winter," she said.

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