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Expressway link in Plan B

| Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006

For the first time since construction began on the Mon/Fayette Expressway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has turned to "Plan B" because it is running out of money.

The commission Tuesday awarded the first of five roadway construction contracts that will begin by the summer for 9.2 miles of the Mon/Fayette system, which has been dubbed phase I of the Uniontown-to-Brownsville section of the highway.

The new section will extend northwest from Route 51 near Uniontown to a new Brownsville connector that will tie into the U.S. Route 40 "stub."

The stretch is expected to open in early 2009.

Mashuda's was the lowest of six bids for the project, which includes a diamond-shaped interchange and another new connector to Route 40 between the villages of Searights and Keisterville. Bids were opened last month.

The stub was planned for local traffic access. But it represents a deviation from the plan to construct 15.2 miles of continuous expressway through the heart of Fayette County.

When completed, northbound motorists would take the expressway to the Davidson Exit, travel over the existing Lane-Bane Bridge to Route 88 and then back onto the expressway.

"We have $200 million to spend on the Uniontown-to-Brownsville section," Turnpike spokesman Joe Agnello said. "We had to decide the best way to spend that money. This was the smartest thing to do in case we do not have the money for the whole 15.2 miles."

Phase II has an even bigger estimated price tag than phase I - as much as $300 million - because it would include construction of a new bridge over the Monongahela River on the Brownsville end of the project as well as completion of an interchange at the intersection of Route 51 and 119 at Uniontown end. Half of that interchange will be built in Phase I.

If the money is available, Phase II bids could be sought this year, Agnello said. The commission has purchased 60 percent of the rights-of-way needed to build that section of the highway. Final design will be completed this year as well.

State Sen. J. Barry Stout (D-Bentleyville) said he recognizes there is a funding shortfall for Uniontown to Brownsville.

"We're trying to get additional money for construction of that section," said Stout, minority chairman of the State Transportation Commission.

"I've been advocating for additional money for the toll road expansion projects, but the peak spike in the gas prices has made it difficult to do any kind of gas tax increase."

One penny of state gas tax raises roughly $65 million annually. The state gas tax currently amounts to 29.7 cents per gallon, up about 4 cents over the past 18 months because of increases in the liquid fuels tax. The rate is tied to prices at the pump.

In 1991, Stout authored the legislation that increased the oil franchise tax and provided the commission a percentage of the additional revenue.

In 1997, he wrote legislation that provides the commission with $28 million a year from an increase in the vehicle registration fees. That fee increased, for example, from $24 to $36 for registration of cars.

To date, roughly 35 miles of the nearly 70-mile expressway has been completed. Roughly 66 miles is located in Pennsylvania. Work is ongoing in West Virginia on about half of its 4.2-mile section.

Still left to complete is the Allegheny County section into Pittsburgh and Monroeville, a 24-mile highway estimated to cost $1.5 billion.

When completed, the highway would link the Mid-Mon Valley with Pittsburgh and Monroeville to the north and Interstate 68 near Cheat Lake in West Virginia to the south.

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