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Turnpike Halts Work on Mon-Fayette Expressway Extension

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
March 22, 2017
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Map: Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission illustration via Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission

The long-delayed, controversial extension of the Mon-Fayette Expressway through West Mifflin, Dravosburg, Duquesne and Turtle Creek appears to be cancelled --- again.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission announced Wednesday afternoon that it will stop engineering and design activities on the planned 14-mile stretch between Route 51 and the Parkway East after the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission on Monday declined to endorse the project.

“The (Pennsylvania) Turnpike has a legislative mandate to develop the Mon-Fayette Expressway, but our role is not to serve as an advocate for the project,” said Mark Compton, chief executive officer of the Turnpike Commission, in a prepared statement.

“This is a regional project, and the decision as to whether it is of value to the region should be made by those who live there," he said. "If the region does not want to move forward with the expressway, we will certainly respect their decision.”

On Monday, the SPC, which makes regional planning recommendations for a 10-county area, was scheduled to vote on whether to give its approval to the estimated $2.16 billion extension of the expressway --- otherwise known as state Route 43 --- which currently ends at Large in Jefferson Hills borough.

Instead the commission voted to table its decision, in part due to concerns raised by Allegheny County members of the SPC, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, according to the Post-Gazette.

“The (Pennsylvania) Turnpike Commission stands ready to deliver this project but only if the people of the region determine that it is a priority,” Compton said Wednesday.

It's the second time that the Turnpike has announced that it was halting work on the Allegheny County section of the expressway. In 2010, the turnpike's chief engineer announced that the 14-mile extension would "probably never be constructed."

But in 2013, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a sweeping transportation funding bill that included money to be allocated for additional construction on the Mon-Fayette, and in 2016, the Turnpike Commission held a series of public hearings in Churchill, Monroeville, Pittsburgh and West Mifflin to discuss possible highway routes.

As presently conceived, the Mon-Fayette would bypass Clairton and McKeesport. Interchanges instead would be built near Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in Dravosburg; on Duquesne Boulevard near Kennywood; on East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard in North Versailles Twp.; and on Business Route 22 and I-376 (the Parkway East) in Monroeville.

A proposed leg through Pittsburgh's Oakland and Hazelwood was dropped in 2015 due to objections from residents and elected officials.

According to Turnpike Commission documents, construction of the expressway extension was projected to begin in 2022, with a completion date of 2036.

At Monday's meeting, according to published reports, several members of the SPC argued that 20 years was too long to wait, and that the Turnpike Commission hadn't yet demonstrated that its other Western Pennsylvania toll roads --- the Beaver Valley Expressway and the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass in Westmoreland County --- have created lasting economic improvements.

Many Mon Valley elected officials, including state Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport, are on record as supporting the highway extension, as is the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce.

But environmental groups have criticized the highway's impact on both pollution and quality of life in the communities that it will travel through. And in 2016, U.S. Public Interest Research Group called the Mon-Fayette's Allegheny County extension one of the top 12 "boondoggle" projects of "questionable value" in the entire United States.

PIRG, a non-profit consumer watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, said extension of the Mon-Fayette would "damage communities ... in an area where residents are calling instead for repairs to existing roads and investment in transit improvements."

The report, written by Jeff Inglis of the Frontier Group, a California-based consultancy, and John C. Olivieri of PIRG's Education Fund, also criticized the Turnpike Commission's traffic estimates, which they said were more than 10 years out of date.

"Alternative ways to spend the billions of taxpayer dollars would expand transportation options for area residents and bring more economic opportunity than the highway," they wrote.

Fitzgerald has urged the Turnpike Commission to redirect funds committed to the extension of the Mon-Fayette Expressway toward other projects in the Mon Valley.

But Compton said that the Turnpike commissioners themselves will decide how to reallocate the funds to other Pennsylvania Turnpike projects, which would apparently rule out improvements to public transit or non-toll roads.

Design of the Mon-Fayette project from Route 51 to I-376 started in 2004, according to a Turnpike spokesman. The final 14 miles would have been the most expensive of the four sections of the Mon-Fayette built since 1988.

Photo of the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Fayette County by Jon Dawson via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-No Derivatives

Originally published March 22, 2017.

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