PITTSBURGH (AP) — The future of the $1.6 billion Mon-Fayette Expressway faces a crucial vote Monday, and two top local leaders say they aren't convinced the project should move ahead.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto say they are concerned about the huge price tag and expected 25-year build out for the highway and wonder whether other projects could benefit the region more.
For decades, the expressway project has been viewed as the savior for the Monongahela Valley, an area that has faced hard times since the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The roadway has gone through several redesigns, including eliminating a leg into Pittsburgh because of community opposition and its high price.
The current design would extend the roadway from Jefferson Hills to the Parkway East and Business Route 22 in Monroeville.
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the 10-county planning agency, is expected to vote Monday on whether to include the toll road in its list of recommended projects for the region. If the commission votes not to recommend the highway or tables action, it could mean the end of the project.
"It's an awful lot of money," Fitzgerald said Thursday. "I still have some questions about it. I'd like to see more immediate help. I think this is worth giving it another look."
Said Peduto: ". There have been concerns from several of the commissioners, including myself, about whether or not this is the No. 1 priority for transportation for Allegheny County."
Steve Craig, a Lawrence County commissioner and a member of the planning group's executive committee, said he's "conflicted" about whether to support the highway. Twenty years ago, he said, officials thought extending Route 60 (now Interstate 376) from Pittsburgh International Airport to Interstate 80 would be an economic boon to that area.
"It was going to be our lifeline, but it wasn't," said Craig, who also co-chaired the Regional Transportation Alliance report earlier this month that recommended 50 ideas for consideration in the region and didn't include the expressway. "As we look to the future, there's really a need to optimize the assets we have on the ground now."
The proposed toll road is a project of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Revised plans were presented at public meetings last year and were expected to be submitted to federal officials for approval this year. If the planning group decides not to proceed with the Mon-Fayette extension, the turnpike commission likely would reprogram funds to other projects.
State Sen. James Brewster, D-Mckeesport, said he is unhappy about the issue coming up for consideration on Monday. He represents many of the communities in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties that could benefit from the highway.
"I'm a little disappointed the SPC is voting on something this important and didn't give (elected officials) an opportunity to be a part of the process," Brewster said. "I'm hoping we can get a stay of execution on this."
Brewster, a former mayor and councilman in McKeesport, said that city and many other communities in the Mon Valley have shovel-ready brown fields ready for redevelopment. But many developers are discouraged by limited transportation access to the area, he said.
"This is our future," he said. "Every company that came into McKeesport had concerns about transportation and access. We have to have infrastructure that allows us to compete."
Another expressway supporter, Maury Burgwin, said the project is vital to the Mon Valley from Clairton to Homestead. Burgwin represents businesses in many of those communities as president of the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce.
"I'd be very disappointed it they were to vote against this. That would be devastating," he said. "We have probably 1,000 acres that could benefit greatly from relatively large development if this highway was built."
Not building the highway would be an example of the valley "getting the short end of the stick again," said Bob Macey, a Democrat who represents West Mifflin on Allegheny County Council and is a voting member of the regional planning group.
"This isn't about tomorrow or the next day — it's about the long-term future of this valley," he said. "We continue to be left out of the plans."
Fitzgerald said he believes improvements such as extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway from Swissvale to Turtle Creek and expanding existing roads in that area would provide faster, more economically efficient improvements in the Mon Valley.
It's more important in today's economy, Peduto said, to connect workers with existing job centers than to develop new areas. He'd also favor a light-rail system from Downtown to the airport over the expressway.
"I think that 50 years ago, (the expressway) made a lot of sense when our economy was based on getting a product to market," the mayor said. "But today our economy is based on getting people to work."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com