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Call renewed for Pennsylvania Turnpike, Arnold Palmer airport link

| Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, 7:29 a.m.

Westmoreland County economic development officials Tuesday made yet another pitch for constructing an expressway that will connect the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport at Route 30 near Latrobe with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, via Route 981.

“It's the county's No. 1 transportation priority. We've got to keep pushing. The economic benefits that project will create can't be predicted. It will be tremendous,” John Skiavo, president of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland, told more than 400 community and business leaders at the organization's annual dinner at the Ramada Inn in Hempfield.

The proposed expressway — dubbed the Laurel Valley Connector — would follow Route 981 from its intersection with the turnpike in Mt. Pleasant Township to Route 30, and would cost an estimated $80 million, Skiavo said.

A Laurel Valley Connector, which has been promoted for several decades, would improve transportation in an area — eastern Westmoreland County — where much of the county's economic development is occurring, Skiavo said. Instead of taking a truck 41 minutes to travel from New Stanton to the airport in Unity, the direct connection to the turnpike would cut that travel time to 18 minutes, Skiavo said.

Golfing legend Arnold Palmer, the keynote speaker in an event honoring the airport and the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, urged the audience to get behind the project.

A direct connection from the turnpike to the airport would spur economic development in the area, particularly at the Westmoreland Airpark, a county-owned business and industrial park near the airport.

“We need to make that happen. It will have such an effect on your business and our business,” said Palmer, referring to the airport that bears his name.

“The airport is just destined to grow,” said Palmer, who has been an airport authority board member for 37 years.

While the turnpike extension project has been discussed for decades — at one time it was proposed to connect New Stanton directly with the airport and Route 30 — the Turnpike Commission has not committed resources to it.

After the event, Skiavo said it is difficult to get the Turnpike Commission to commit to building a new highway, even one that costs just $80 million, because a 2007 law requires the commission to divert $450 million annually to the state. That arrangement, which allowed the commission to borrow more money, has burdened the turnpike with debt.

Economic Growth Connection recognized the airport and airport authority for the growth it has experienced and its contribution to economic development.

Donald Rossi, airport authority chairman, reiterated the agency's plans to build a new terminal and a parallel runway as part of an airport expansion. Rossi did not offer a timetable for the project, but the authority board this summer discussed borrowing as much as $20 million for the project.

Palmer said the proximity of the airport enabled him to play in golf tournaments in the morning and return home to be with his family in the evening.

“I could never have done the things I did in the world of golf and the world of business, without that airport,” said Palmer, who grew up about a mile from the facility.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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