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Mon/Fayette Expressway remains road less traveled

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, 1:31 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates fan Ashley Baird of California, Pa. gets a kiss from Bella, her two-year-old Yorkie, in the outfield seats at PNC Park Tuesday August 7, 2012 during Pup Night at the ballpark. Fans brought their canines to the Bucs' game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Reading about a highway for two weeks in a row in “persona non grata” may seem like too much ado, but the Mid-Mon Valley's future rides on it, or needs to ride on it.

The latest section was officially christened at a ribbon-cutting last week to enable traffic to use 60 continuous miles of the Mon/Fayette Expressway through Fayette, Washington and southern Allegheny counties.

On three separate occasions, I counted cars and trucks using the highway at a point just south of the newly-opened, 3,000-foot-long bridge over the Monongahela River near Brownsville.

Traffic averaged around 300 vehicles an hour in mid-afternoon, disappointing considering a nearly $2 billion public investment that, nonetheless, connects parts of the region deprived of a 21st century transportation route to the rest of the world.

By comparison, during the same time periods, at least a dozen more vehicles per hour, or 3,600 vehicles, crossed the Interstate 70 bridge between Speers and Belle Vernon.

The number of tri-axle trucks traveling the expressway at my vantage point was especially noteworthy, many obviously discovering the high-speed toll road to be more feasible than grueling drives over two-lane U.S. 40 and Route 88. Time is money.

The question is this: Will public officials do what is necessary to promote the virgin corridor not only for regular travel but as a magnet to attract business to grounds fertile with resources? Time will tell.

While the expressway is a godsend for some, and while traffic on the new stretch will increase over time, as it has elsewhere, the challenge remains in fulfilling the original purpose of one of the nation's largest highway projects by making it a bigger regional asset.

That is, building the rest of the Southern Beltway to Pittsburgh International Airport and the northern leg of the expressway to Interstate 376 at Monroeville, thereby creating a revenue-generating bypass of Pittsburgh congestion.

Federal approval, engineering and construction are not the problem. Money is. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will still need about $3 billion, even if the expensive other northern leg of the expressway to Downtown is taken off the table, which is likely.

Notably, no speaker at last Thursday's ceremony, including Gov. Tom Corbett, pledged to move any more of the long-promised project toward construction soon A Pittsburgh transportation planner e-mailed me after last week's column, declaring, “We've gone too far to stop now.” So true.

Motorists may be shunning the expressway for two reasons besides interchanges not being necessarily convenient for a number of them.

They're not studying the route and figuring out how it may be advantageous, reducing time, fuel, vehicle wear-and-tear and traffic interruptions.

Example: Valley residents headed to Washington, D.C., and points south should consider using toll-free Interstate 68 rather than I-70 and the turnpike mainline between New Stanton and Breezewood, avoiding a cash toll of $8.25.

You will, of course, have to pay cash tolls totaling $4.05 between I-70 and West Virginia, a net savings of $4.20, even more with E-ZPass, but far, far less traffic.

Tolls can be a disincentive.

Example: Are people headed eastbound on I-68 with Pittsburgh as the destination willing to exit at Turnpike 43 North and pay $5.70 in cash tolls to travel to Route 51, Jefferson Hills, and then to town?

Or will they drive 23 more miles west on I-68 past Morgantown to I-79 North, avoiding the hassle of Route 51 through the South Hills?

Remember tolls are lower using E-ZPass, so even people who occasionally drive the 525-mile turnpike system for long distances or more than a few times a year can save with electronic tolling.

Effective Jan 1, the turnpike will drop the annual fee for E-ZPass from $6 to $3

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Thought du jour - “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence; Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” –Poet Robert Frost

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