Looking ahead to 2018 in the Alle-Kiski Valley
As 2017 drew to a close, there are several ongoing issues from across the Alle-Kiski Valley that will continue to make headlines in 2018.
What follows are some of the stories readers can expect the Valley News Dispatch edition of the Tribune-Review to focus on this year.
Not included in this list is perhaps one of the biggest issues confronting people in Western Pennsylvania, and, indeed, throughout the nation: the ongoing fight against an unprecedented opioid epidemic.
That epidemic claimed more than 50,000 American lives in 2016 alone. In October, officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control said the epidemic is getting worse, not better.
This story's effect on the families in our region cannot be expressed in brief and so is featured on page A1.
The fight against blight
The story is the same regardless of community: once thriving urban areas are now empty of both residents and businesses.
New Kensington has been working to tackle the problem by focusing on a downtown transformation dubbed the Corridor of Innovation, which centers around a partnership with the Penn State college system and the opening of an entrepreneur center downtown. Arnold hopes to use federal Community Development Block Grants to tear down blighted property there. Tarentum has been tackling the problem one house at a time.
However, despite all of the efforts made so far, continued progress requires the will — and money — to see the issue to its end.
Westmoreland County officials estimate there are as many as 900 blighted properties throughout the county, so readers can expect to see blight-centered stories throughout the year.
UPMC vs. Allegheny Health Network
Expect a new level of competition between rivals UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, parent of Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison.
Giant UPMC, which announced in November a massive $2 billion plan to build three new specialty hospitals, has said it is eyeing Natrona Heights for a possible outpatient facility.
AHN and Highmark Health also have big plans.
They will spend $700 million to build a new hospital in Pine Township and four smaller hospitals around the region.
The stakes are high.
By June 2019, all business relations are scheduled to end between UPMC and Highmark under a state-brokered consent decree.
After that happens, Highmark members will have to pay more to get into UPMC facilities.
Route 28 improvements
If you're from the Valley, then you already know Route 28 is a nightmare snarl of intermittent traffic and sudden lane changes and restrictions.
The Highland Park Bridge interchange, one of the area's biggest rush-hour bottlenecks and most hazardous highway stretches, also is one of PennDOT's priorities.
That interchange reduces traffic to one lane in each direction — via stripes painted on the roadway.
That flow-choking situation has persisted through completion of work worth $106 million south of the bridge and $48.8 million north of the bridge — because of lack of funding, PennDOT said early this year.
PennDOT unveiled a $55 million plan to eventually address that interchange, but not until 2020-21.
In the meantime, PennDOT will spend $35 million to $40 million for work this year that includes 12 weekend closures along seven miles of Route 28 even farther north, between the Butler County line and the southbound Creighton on-ramp.
For the 57,000 commuters that pass the Highland Park Bridge interchange on a twice-daily basis — at an agonizingly slow pace — this will continue to be a hot topic.
Leechburg Road and Burrell Plaza
The road project started in July, a $5 million reclamation taking place between Craigdell Road and the Route 56 Bypass in Lower Burrell. It is expected to continue through June 2018.
Overnight lane restrictions on the busy road will continue to be in effect from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. until the summer, according to PennDOT Project Manager James Kettering.
About 15,000 cars typically use the road every day. But there's more to the story than just the road.
Mayor Richard Callender hopes the improvements will attract a tenant to the former JCPenney building in Burrell Plaza. The adjacent building, formerly home to Montgomery Ward, is now a U-Haul storage and rental center. Finding occupants for the building has been an ongoing concern for city leaders.
Readers can expect continued updates on the project and the prospects for Burrell Plaza.
School mergers and reconsolidating
More than 50 years ago, the Leechburg Area School District was supposed to be part of a five-school district consolidation plan that failed.
State Act 561 of 1961 mandated that small, community school districts merge with neighboring schools. One plan had Leechburg Area, Freeport Area, Ford City, Apollo Area and Elders Ridge consolidating to form South Armstrong County.
But Freeport took the issue to court in 1966 and won, thus killing the plan. Ford City then became part of Armstrong School District; Apollo and Elders Ridge merged, and Leechburg Area and Freeport Area were left intact.
Now, a number of Leechburg Area residents want the issue revisited, with some suggesting a merger with the Kiski Area district instead of planned improvements to school buildings.
New Kensington-Arnold, Freeport Area, Highlands, and Kiski Area school districts have all had to sell buildings in the last three years as student populations and the number of tax paying residents shrank.
District mergers may end up being the solution for cash-strapped schools.
Readers can expect coverage of the ongoing conversation about how best to serve students to continue throughout the year.