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I-99 segment gets environmental OK

Project still on hold as foes mull appeal

Saturday, December 07, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Environmental regulators yesterday issued what a state transportation official called "the big permit," allowing construction of a hotly contested stretch of Interstate 99 north of Altoona.

By the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's schedule, that means dirt should be flying by March along the highway's nine-mile path.

But for now, all that's flying is criticism.

A lawyer for an environmental advocacy group said yesterday that his side is likely to appeal, asking that construction be barred until the matter is decided.

And PennDOT's assistant engineer for the district overseeing the project said that work can't go on unless the department resolves a dispute with the state Game Commission to take 68 acres of game land in the highway's path.

"We definitely need that piece of property to proceed without major changes," said Kevin Kline, assistant district manager for construction at PennDOT's Clearfield-based District 2.

The highway is intended to cure congestion and above-average accident rates on a two-lane bottleneck that it would replace.

The permit issued yesterday is the state Department of Environmental Protection's nod that PennDOT can start building, having shown it can soften I-99's environmental damage as it cuts into Bald Eagle Ridge from northern Blair County to Port Matilda, 10 miles southwest of State College.

What DEP spokesman Dan Spadoni called "a fairly complex permit" that took eight months to decide has PennDOT promising, among other things, to create 50 acres of wetlands for 11 it will take away.

A coalition of environmental and sportsmen's groups, headed by the environmental group PennFuture, has argued for several years that I-99 will make environmental wreckage of Bald Eagle Ridge and should go through the valley below instead.

Valley residents, scattered among farms and small clusters of houses, insist that the mountain route is less disruptive.

George Jugovic, PennFuture attorney, said yesterday that he will examine such issues as hydrology and wetland replacement before PennFuture decides finally whether to challenge DEP with an appeal that would have to go to the state Environmental Hearing Board within a month.

In a statement released yesterday, PennFuture threw a political spin on DEP's decision, portraying it as the Schweiker administration's parting shot, breaking the governor's vow to cap spending for the incoming Rendell administration.

DEP insisted it approved the plan with the "least overall impact to ... social, economic, cultural and environmental resources."

The interagency squabble between PennDOT and the Game Commission, meanwhile, awaits a hearing before Commonwealth Court.

Kline said that PennDOT, which offered a three-for-one swap to replace the acres of game land it would take, still is negotiating. Game Commission officials were not available later yesterday for response.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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