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Specter promises to seek funds for Expressway

| Tuesday, March 2, 2010

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Philadelphia, promised to seek funding in a new transportation bill in a bid to finish the Mon/Fayette Expressway between Jefferson Hills and Wilkins Township.

"He's agreed to move that to the top of the priority list," state Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, said after accompanying Specter Monday to U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant and the Palisades in McKeesport.

"I had frankly hoped that the stimulus package had more money for highways," Specter told an audience at McKees Cafe, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"It is a battle every year with projects across the country," said Specter, who served 30 years on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"The project is estimated to cost around $6.6 billion, of which $2.1 billion has been committed, according to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission," Specter spokeswoman Kate Kelly said.

It has been estimated that it might cost $3.8 billion to finish the project between Route 51 in Jefferson Hills and Interstate 376, the Parkway East, in Wilkins, with a spur headed west along the Monongahela River from North Versailles Township to Pittsburgh.

Reportedly, Congress will consider a new highway policy bill later this year.

Since 2005, federal policy for highways has come under the "Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act, A Legacy for Users," SAFETEA-LU.

It was the latest in a series of transportation funding acts dating back to 1991. SAFETEA-LU was to expire at the end of the last federal fiscal year Sept. 30, 2009, but Congress extended it twice last fall. In December, the House approved a jobs bill, HR 2847, with an extension of SAFETEA-LU through this coming Sept. 30. That bill has been going back and forth between the Senate and House because of amendments.

Specter said he helped get $75 million for the expressway as well as the Southern Beltway that would stretch across southern Allegheny County from the expressway to Interstate 376 near Pittsburgh International Airport.

Specter's office said it included $18.8 million in 1991, $1.8 million in 1992, $30.8 million in 1998, $7 million in 2004, $12.7 million in 2005 and $4.4 million in 2006.

Kortz asked Specter if a provision could be removed requiring a 20 percent local match for 80 percent federal funding on a project.

"That cannot be done, Bill," Specter responded.

One of those in attendance suggested that all the federal government needs is a 20 percent match.

"We believe using this approach we could achieve in the range of $400 (million) to $700 million dedicated to the expressway project in Allegheny County," Mon Valley Progress Council Executive Director Joseph Kirk said.

Kirk said investors could be persuaded to enter a private-public partnership to cover 40 to 60 percent of the cost, perhaps $1.4 billion, with the rest coming from state or other sources or from finding ways in the design process to cut costs.

Kirk said a section in SAFETEA-LU covers "Projects of National and Regional Significance" which Kirk helped write that could be moved to a new bill almost intact if it can be directed toward his 20 percent plan.

"I made a presentation to then (House Appropriations Chairman) C.W. Young (R-Fla.) and essentially presented this concept," Kirk said. However, instead of providing Mon/Fayette funding, "it became another source of entitlement."

Specter also met privately with municipal officials and state lawmakers from Mon-Yough communities and from as far away as Johnstown.

"(The Mon/Fayette Expressway) affects the whole state," state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, said. "You build a $4 billion project, it is going to affect the whole state, at least out to Johnstown."

"This has to happen, because it means real jobs," state House Transportation Chairman Joseph Markosek, D-Monroeville, said. "I'd like to think that Westinghouse wouldn't have made (the move from Monroeville to Cranberry Township) if we had that highway here."

Markosek called Specter's meeting a lead-in to hearings today and tomorrow at Point Park University. Markosek's committee will deal with highway issues today, then with freight and passenger rail Wednesday.

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