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Westmoreland

Adding turnpike exits in Penn, Mt. Pleasant townships explored

Jacob Tierney
| Friday, April 7, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

A longstanding discussion about turnpike ramps in two Westmoreland County communities has been revived by a study of what it would take to build them.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike travels through Penn and Mt. Pleasant townships but does not have an interchange in either. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission highlighted both locations in a recent study into the impact of cashless tolling.

“We recognized that the turnpike's conversion to cashless tolling was on the horizon. We also recognized that conversion to cashless technologies could make it more feasible to provide additional access points along the turnpike in the future,” said Domenic A. D'Andrea, manager of operations and safety programs for the commission.

A representative from the Turnpike Commission could not be reached for comment.

Cashless turnpike exits eschew typical toll booths. Drivers don't need to slow down or stop; they can drive through at normal speed and the exit will either charge their E-ZPass account or take a photo of their license plate to send them a bill. The Turnpike Commission has been gradually rolling out cashless exits since last year.

The SPC study examined nine potential locations for new cashless turnpike interchanges. Four were selected for a more detailed evaluation — in Mt. Pleasant, Penn, Harmar and Richland townships.

Penn Township Manager Alex Graziani said ramps would be welcomed there, where many residents commute to Pittsburgh for work.

“We're a bedroom community, and many of our commuters would be able to shave minutes off their commute,” he said. “For the vast majority of people, it would mean quicker access to the city.”

However, there are obstacles. The SPC study suggested building the ramps on state Route 130, which would bring an estimated 8,000 additional cars a day to the already-busy roadway.

The road would need to be widened, the study concluded. A turnpike interchange alone would cost an estimated $29.6 million, but making the necessary improvements to Route 130 would more than double the price tag to $67.7 million.

Because Route 130 is involved, the project would require coordination with PennDOT, Graziani said.

“You need the turnpike to say, ‘Yes, we'll build an interchange,' and PennDOT to say, ‘Yes, we'll improve 130,' and it's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” he said.

At next week's planning meeting, Penn Township commissioners will discuss whether to spend $5,000 on a second, smaller study to see how much it would cost to maintain a toll exit and how much revenue it likely would generate.

“Could the interchange, if it was built, support itself?” Graziani said.

A second study was first proposed last month, but commissioners tabled it to have more time to consider whether it was worth spending the money on a project that still has many challenges.

Officials in Mt. Pleasant Borough and Mt. Pleasant Township are skeptical about an interchange.

They are concerned truck traffic could increase as a result of an added exit off the turnpike near Carpentertown, in a rural area near the Mt. Pleasant Area Junior and Senior High School campus.

It would be easier for travelers in that area to have a local exit, but Route 981 isn't prepared for that level of traffic, said township Supervisor Duane Hutter.

“PennDOT needs to get 981 taken care of” before an exit is added, he said.

PennDOT is studying the possibility of improving 11 miles of Route 981, including the stretch that would be occupied by the proposed interchange.

The SPC study determined it would take $19.6 million to build the interchange. This includes new turning lanes on Route 981 but no further improvements to the road.

The proposed turnpike exit, located about 4 miles northwest of Mt. Pleasant Borough, is one of the top issues facing the borough over the next few years, said manager Jeff Landy. While the exit could bring more visitors, it also could mean more coal trucks and tractor-trailers traveling through, he said.

“Right now, we're not big on being a throughway for tractor trucks and lots of coal trucks,” he said. “We want people to stop. We're looking at right now, lots of trucks coming through town.”

Both interchanges are just suggestions for now, as they have been for years. It's up to the Turnpike Commission whether to do the additional studies and add the projects to its long-term plans, D'Andrea said.

Staff writer Renatta Signorini contributed. Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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