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The Mon-Fayette Expressway is the second partitioning of Turtle Creek

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

By Ann Belser, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Lee and John Peters sit on their back porch, they need only to raise their chins to see where the roadway of the Mon-Fayette Expressway is going to run -- about 60 feet up and 200 yards away from their home in Turtle Creek.

"We're going to be the trolls under the bridge," Lee Peters said.


On the Expressway

Second of five articles on the impact of the Mon-Fayette Expressway on the East communities.

Other articles in the series:

Part One: Braddock area: A region divided over expressway plans

Part Three: Wilkins wonders about impact of expressway

Part Four: Monroeville: Highway will have 'minimal impact' -- except for those affected

Part Five: Ramp seen as boon to area of Penn Hills


The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, in its plans to build the final phases of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, has three options for how the roadway will run through Turtle Creek. All of them have one thing in common: They will cut through the center of the borough.

Turtle Creek has already been cut in half once. In 1968 the Tri-Boro Expressway opened after 320 buildings were demolished in Turtle Creek for the project, which was also being billed as the way to revitalized the Mon Valley. The Tri-Boro Expressway never made it beyond Turtle Creek.

The Mon-Fayette Expressway is slated to run perpendicular to the Tri-Boro Expressway, cutting the borough into quarters.

At an open house in Monroeville in April, during which residents could review the plans for the roadway, Rob Hilliard of Mackin Engineering said the engineers for the project have spent more time on Turtle Creek than any other part of the roadway.

There are three options for Turtle Creek. In one, both lanes of the expressway run where the Penn Plaza shopping center now stands. In that plan, the structure housing the shopping plaza would be moved to a new building that will be constructed across the parking lot from the current one. Then the old shopping plaza will be torn down for the highway construction.

"We won't lose a day of business from what they informed us," said John Sapida, whose family owns John's Leader Drugs in Penn Plaza.

"They're being fair to the businesspeople, but not being fair to the residents," he said.

In the second option, the lanes would run together right through the Penn Plaza parking lot.

In the third option, the expressway lanes would split, with the northbound lanes running through the Plaza parking lot and the southbound lanes running between Penn Plaza and St. Colman's Church along Railroad Street.

Dolores R. Porter, the administrator for Turtle Creek, said when members of borough council met with turnpike consultants planning the expressway, they all agreed that the only option that would work for the borough would be the one in which Penn Plaza would be relocated across the parking lot. She said that plan would have the least impact on businesses in Turtle Creek.

Turnpike spokesman Joe Agnello said between 71 and 87 homes will be lost and between eight and 12 businesses, depending on how the expressway runs through the business district.

One of the businesses that definitely will go belongs to Roy Young, the proprietor of Roy Young's Auto Service on Church Street. Young, 64, has owned the shop for 20 years. He said when the news first got out that the roadway would displace his operation, he noticed a decline of business from people who thought he was already closed.

Now, he said, he has spent the past three years waiting to hear when the turnpike commission will buy him out. The expressway plans have left him unable to sell the business and unwilling to make any costly improvements.

"I can't plan nothing," he said.

The highway project has been in the works since 1985 when the state legislature voted in favor of Act 61, which designated highway projects statewide, Agnello said.

While communities all along the Mon-Fayette Expressway will be affected by the roadway, Turtle Creek will be among the hardest hit.

In order for the expressway to run north to the Parkway East in Monroeville with the least disruption, "We needed to get into the Thompson Run valley...To get there we had to get through Turtle Creek, and that was the problem," said Jerry Schwertz, executive vice president of Mackin Engineering, which is performing the traffic studies for the turnpike commission.

Turtle Creek is a unique community in the debate over the Mon-Fayette Expressway because it can be used to illustrate the points of every argument.

Left devastated by the loss of industry, the borough still is struggling as other areas in and around Pittsburgh have boomed. It is also in the position to benefit from the transportation access that can be provided by the expressway, while being cut up by that same highway.

The closest interchange to Turtle Creek is planned to be one mile from the business district.

Richard Florida, a professor of regional and economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, said contrary to providing access to the Mon Valley, the Mon-Fayette Expressway will provide a way to zip past the area on the way somewhere else.

He said what the road will do to the Mon Valley is "to red-line it with a highway so more affluent people can move to Fayette County instead of Cranberry."

As for Turtle Creek, Florida said, "It's beyond me why you are going to destroy this historic area ... . It seems to me you're bisecting a community and you're offering this thing up as some false hope."

On the other side of the issue is Joe Kirk, co-chairman of the Mon-Fayette Expressway Association, who said the roadway will help Turtle Creek, along with the rest of the Mon Valley, by providing access for trucks.

He said it could help the population base as well.

"By improving access to an area, it can cause people to say, 'I can live here and work elsewhere,' " he said.

The Mon Valley, Kirk said, has more than 1,000 acres of industrial land that is open to be developed. "If you really want to see that grow and develop you need transportation."

And in the middle of the debate over the expressway sit Lee and John Peters, whose home will be nearly under the elevated expressway and who wish they were among those who will be bought out by the turnpike commission. They worry about the noise, but more importantly, they worry about the rain runoff because they were flooded in 1997 when Thompson Run breached its banks.

If the turnpike commission would buy the house, they wouldn't have to worry about painting or putting new windows in a home that is now assessed at $28,000, but may be worth nearly nothing when traffic is driving by.

John Peters looked up the hill across the creek from his house and pondered the problems to come.

"That whole highway, it's going to do to us living by it nothing but harm," he said.

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