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Toll road backers press Legislature for $106.6 million per year funding

Wednesday, June 09, 1999

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HARRISBURG -- Supporters of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway have proposed "Plan H" to legislative leaders, asking for $106.6 million per year to support construction of the toll road system south of Pittsburgh.

Yesterday, they asked members of the House Transportation Committee to earmark the money from the $400 million annual increase in federal highway funding that Pennsylvania gets as a result of a federal transportation spending bill passed 1 1/2 years ago.

Joe Kirk, head of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway Alliance, and a chartered busload of highway supporters traveled from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to meet with legislative leaders and the transportation committee.

Although he supports the toll road projects and acknowledged Plan H, for highways, is "a great start," committee chairman Rep. Rich Geist, R-Altoona, said "it may be a while."

He said the additional federal highway money already has been earmarked for other road projects in the next four years.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would use the money to sell bonds and raise $1.28 billion, most of which would be used to finance construction of a Y-shaped, 27-mile section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway from Route 51 in Jefferson Hills to Pittsburgh and Monroeville.

The rest of the bond money, along with additional bond funds backed by projected toll revenues, would be sufficient to pay for a $400 million section of expressway between Uniontown and Brownsville in Fayette County and a six-mile, $130 million section of the Southern Beltway called the Findlay Connector, from Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County, to Route 60 across from the Pittsburgh International Airport entrance.

All of those sections of limited-access highway are moving along in the planning process, but the turnpike has not secured financing.

"This additional [federal] funding creates a unique window of opportunity that we should seize to complete this crucial highway network," Kirk told members of the Transportation Committee.

Kirk said Plan H calls for the alliance of civic, business, labor, community and government interests he chairs to work with the Turnpike Commission in an effort to secure the funding.

Meanwhile, if other federal funds became available, the request for regular highway funds would be reduced, he said.

Federal transportation legislation known as TEA-21 allows states to use federal highway funds to pay up to 50 percent of the cost of toll roads.

But the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has said it needs the additional highway money to fix or replace deteriorating interstate highways and other federally designated roads such as Routes 22, 30 and 40.

With PennDOT receiving $400 million more a year, a 47 percent increase over prior funding levels, expressway supporters say there's enough for PennDOT and the toll projects.

Geist, noting that the $400 million is already programmed for other projects for the next four years, said another gas tax increase may be the answer, combined with public-private partnerships to build interchanges and an increase in Pennsylvania Turnpike mainline tolls.

The turnpike has been receiving a 1-cent-a-gallon state tax on gas and diesel fuel sales since 1991, and $28 million a year from the 1997 increase in motor vehicle registration fees -- a total of about $70 million a year designated for expansion of toll roads.

That funding, combined with other sources, has supported $1.2 billion in planning, design, land acquisition, utility and construction work. By the end of 2001, 35 miles of the 65-mile Mon-Fayette Expressway will be open.

"The leadership of the commonwealth, in providing this funding, is bringing hope to a region that has suffered tremendous economic dislocation," Kirk told the transportation committee.

The planned expressway follows the Monongahela River valley from Pittsburgh south to Interstate 68 in West Virginia. The proposed beltway follows the Washington-Allegheny county line from Finleyville to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Cost of the two projects is about $3 billion, making them one of the largest public transportation undertakings in the nation.

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