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Wilkins wonders about impact of expressway

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

By Ann Belser, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Damian Soffer is all for building the Mon-Fayette Expressway. The fact that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will have to knock down his $13 million building in Wilkins to do it is a small price to pay, he said.

On the Expressway

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

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

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


Soffer is the president of The Soffer Organization, which owns the CompUSA building that is slated to be replaced with an interchange between Business Route 22 and the Mon-Fayette Expressway. Representatives of the commission have said they will replace the building by filling in the hillside behind the Sears, Roebuck & Co. store next door. No other buildings in Wilkins would have to be taken to build the expressway.

Soffer said no one has talked to him about what the commission plans to do, but he is all for giving up the CompUSA building, in part because it will mean that his Penn Center complex of office space and retail buildings will be right next to the interchange.

"Comp will do business no matter where they are, and to have our office complex on so major an artery will be a boon for business," Soffer said.

But his support of the roadway isn't only self-serving. He said he supports it because it will help the entire region by improving the flow of traffic.

The Wilkins commissioners, who are looking beyond Soffer's property line and at the potential for more traffic on Business Route 22, are not as supportive of the ramps connecting the expressway to Wilkins.

"That will be no benefit to Wilkins Township," said John Hanlon, the president of the board of commissioners. Hanlon and his colleagues, while not against the entire highway project, oppose the ramp to Business Route 22, because they say it would increase traffic on a road that already is jammed.

As part of the project, the state plans to add turning lanes and a traffic light to Business Route 22 at the interchange.

At a meeting with the Wilkins commissioners, Jerry Schwertz, the executive vice president of Mackin Engineering, which is performing the traffic studies for the expressway, said the new roadway would funnel more traffic off of Business Route 22 than it would add.

But township officials scoffed when Schwertz told them the traffic studies were performed during the daytime on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The roadway, which serves miles of retail shops and shopping malls in Wilkins and Monroeville, is at its most congested on the weekends and during the Christmas shopping season.

Farther south in Wilkins, where the expressway will cross into the township from Turtle Creek, Jane and Fred Link are far removed from the traffic of Business Route 22.

The couple likes to spend evenings on their front porch on Railroad Street. There, they can watch the hawks circle over woods that cover the hillside across Thompson Run. They've seen deer, a beaver, rabbits and groundhogs.

Although Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Turtle Creek and East Pittsburgh has been replaced by the growing Keystone Commons industrial park, the train tracks on that side of the creek are overgrown. The Union Railroad tracks across the creek carry only a few trains a day. It's quiet on Railroad Street.

Jane Caprara, 76, a Railroad Street resident, said that even if the new expressway becomes her towering next-door neighbor, she has no plans to leave the home she and her late husband bought in 1955 when their son Enrico was only 6 months old.

"My house is only an old house," she said. "I figure if those people who have $200,000 homes with the turnpike over the top of them can have beautiful homes, I guess I can too."

Jane Link, 54, has a fountain in her back yard, right next to the butterfly bush that is frequented by humming birds. Link said she enjoys the quiet and is afraid of what will happen to the wildlife that will be displaced by the expressway.

"They're going to take the woods," she said. "It think it's wrong."

Across the creek, the roadway has been designed to be built on pillars above the railroad tracks. Link said that building the expressway there also will depress the value of her house, for which she paid $40,000 in 1989 and has since been remodeling.

As a school bus driver for Laidlaw Transportation, Link said she knows highways because she has driven on many of them. The plans for the Mon-Fayette Expressway would cut off Thompson Run Road from Northern Pike.

She said none of the roads that the commission plans to connect to the expressway can hold the extra traffic.

"In the long run it's going to create havoc," she said. "Do we want to be a California where roads are all piled up on top of each other? I don't think so. My husband says we're going to be all roads and shopping malls."

Joel Tarr, a professor of urban and environmental history and policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said the cost of building highways tends to fall on the area's poorest residents.

"Because land is cheapest in poor communities, the disamenities tend to fall heaviest on the poorer communities," he said. In addition to taking land, he said the effects of highways include emissions, particle pollution, dust and noise.

"That doesn't mean you shouldn't build highways, but you need a very good reason," Tarr said.

For some residents of Wilkins, the time spent sitting in traffic every time they want to get through the Squirrel Hill Tunnels on their way to or from Pittsburgh is enough reason to build the expressway, which will run down to the Monongahela River and follow along the river to Downtown.

Kathy Rosella, 61, who has lived in Wilkins for 27 years, said she can never guess how long it will take to get through the tunnel.

She volunteers at Mercy Hospital and sometimes it takes 15 minutes to get there, other times it's twice that.

"You zip along very nicely sometimes," she said. "Other times you get backed up at Wilkinsburg or you get backed up at Churchill and there's no construction."

She said she hates to see what the expressway would do to Turtle Creek, which would be divided in half by the construction.

For one thing, she said, her mechanic, Roy Young, would be displaced by the road.

But that wouldn't stop her from paying the tolls to avoid the tunnels on the Parkway East.

"I guess I have mixed feelings, but it would make my life easier."

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