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Expressway progresses but more money is needed

Sunday, January 23, 2000

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A 2-cent increase in the state's gasoline tax may be necessary in several years to sustain construction of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and related Southern Beltway, combination transportation-economic development projects in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Even if such an increase passed political muster, it would not raise enough money to finish building all 95 miles of both limited-access highways, supporters have predicted.

They also are lobbying the state to earmark part of its $400 million annual increase in federal highway aid toward the $3 billion total cost, now that up to 50 percent of those funds can be applied toward toll roads.

State Sen. J. Barry Stout, D-Bentleyville, ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee and legislative benefactor of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the Southern Beltway, said getting the money would be "a tremendous fight."

And while some groundwork is being laid now, the fight is not likely to take place until the next governor is seated in January 2003.

"The first year of the next governor's first term is crucial," Stout said, because agreeing to a tax increase or diversion of federal funds then is viewed as being more politically palatable than later in a four-year term.

Ex-governors Dick Thornburgh and Robert P. Casey supported the toll roads, albeit reluctantly at times. Gov. Ridge made a commitment to the projects during his first gubernatorial campaign.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has enough money to continue work and planning for now, said John Durbin, its executive director.

"We have what we need for about the next three years," he said. "At that point, when plans are finished and approved, money becomes a critical issue if we want to continue with construction. The next governor will have to make the call."

So far, the turnpike has spent or raised a little more than $1 billion toward the cost of the expressway and beltway.

The amount includes $28 million a year that the turnpike has been putting into an escrow account since May 1997, an amount earmarked from the last increase in the state gas tax. Although the revenue could support about another $300 million in bonds for the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the Southern Beltway, the turnpike can't sell bonds until courts settle a challenge mounted by Common Cause/Pennsylvania, a citizens watchdog group.

The two toll roads pass through parts of Fayette, Washington and Allegheny counties, but supporters say their impact will be far-reaching .

About 10 miles built by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and turned over to the Turnpike Commission have been open since the early 1990s. Eight miles built by the turnpike south of Uniontown will open March 1.

And, 17 miles from Interstate 70, Fallowfield, to Route 51 in Jefferson Hills are to be open by late 2001.

Durbin said there was enough money to finish final design of the first portion of the Southern Beltway, the so-called Findlay Connector from Route 30 in Robinson, Washington County, to Route 60 at Pittsburgh International Airport, "before we run out of green" for construction.

The turnpike also can finish planning and environmental studies on two other sections of the Southern Beltway east to Interstate 79 and the Mon-Fayette Expressway, and on the $1 billion Route 51-to-Pittsburgh section.

Money has been set aside for property acquisition and utility work on a "missing link" of expressway from Uniontown to Brownsville, where the final alignment is still in the evaluation stage.

"There are a lot of good economic development and transportation projects in Pittsburgh and the region, but nothing matches these," said Joe Kirk, chairman of an expressway-beltway advocacy group. "Nothing comes close."

Stout said the turnpike also had to start exploring sources other than gas tax increases and federal funds to finance future construction.

He said supplemental sources could include public/private partnerships and bonds supported by toll revenues from the Pittsburgh section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway that will serve as a bypass to the congested Parkway East.

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