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Laurel Valley highway plan revived

| Wednesday, April 30, 2003

It may have evolved from the Laurel Valley Expressway, but PennDOT says the Laurel Valley Transportation Improvement project isn't the same plan just yet.

"This was first proposed in 1967," PennDOT Project Manager William Oshcack told some 90 people who turned out Tuesday at Norvelt Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant Township to hear state Department of Transportation officials outline the status of the latest incarnation of the long-proposed plan.

By the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Laurel Valley Expressway had come to mean a new four-lane, 20-mile highway to link Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike near New Stanton to Route 30 near what was then the Westmoreland County Airport in Unity Township. A second, seven-mile section would have connected from there to Route 22 near Blairsville, Indiana County.

But with changing political climates and estimated price tags ranging from $500 million to $700 million, the proposal languished on long-range plans and never seemed to reach fruition.

Now it's back on the department's radar, but whether it gels as once foreseen remains to be determined.

"Currently, we're on step four of our 10-step development process," Oshnack said. "We're looking at preliminary alternatives. We have no alignments to present right now."

The department has contracted KCI Technologies Inc., of Pittsburgh, to conduct a "needs analysis," which was completed in 2000. KCI is now working on a "preliminary alternatives analysis," which is to be finished by spring 2004.

The study area includes East Huntingdon, Derry, Hempfield, Mt. Pleasant and Unity townships.

KCI Project Manager Gus Drizos said the alternatives analysis will determine a range of options, "one of which would be a 'no build' alternative. What would happen if we did nothing?"

Other options may include improving eight locations where accident rates are three times the state average, improving four locations that have bridge restrictions or completing roadway improvements from the area near Sony Technology Center in East Huntingdon Township to the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity Township.

But the department isn't proposing building an entire new bypass or expressway road at this time.

The project is listed on the 2003 12-year Transportation Program adopted by the state Transportation Commission in November 2002. But all that's been earmarked in the way of funding is $4.4 million for preliminary engineering and final design in the first four years of the plan.

And proposals for a Laurel Valley Expressway have been on 12-year plans before.

The LVE "sat on the 12-year plan for 14 years," said Ralph Scalise, representing the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce. "And before that, it was on from 1967 to 1977. So this is really a 40-year project."

"This is a major step. It's progress. But this is still a moving target right now, it's an unknown," Scalise said. "And if it gets stuck in just an improvement project, then it absolutely misses the vision."

"It's not acceptable to build nothing or just improve existing roads without connecting them to go around the population centers," he added. "And you can't stop it on Route 30; you need the northern end, too, to Route 22."

Terry Daughenbaugh, who chairs the transportation committee of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County, has championed the Laurel Valley Expressway for 14 years.

"It has been a long, hard pull. We've spent a lot of time just keeping this alive," Daughenbaugh said. "But I'm encouraged by the studies I have seen that prove that we have to make these improvements."

"The amount of jobs this could create is just tremendous ... 30,000 new jobs is not a reach," Daughenbaugh added. "And they would be good, high-tech jobs. That's what's in this. That's what this is all about. It's jobs."

The department will hold another meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 tonight at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport and plans to organize a community advisory board to assist the project team.

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