Southern Beltway back on track

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A state lawmaker claims the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is close to announcing a funding source to begin construction of a long-stalled Southern Beltway toll road corridor linking Southpointe to Pittsburgh International Airport.


State Sen. Tim Solobay said his conversations with Gov. Tom Corbett and Turnpike Commission officials indicate a ground-breaking for the road could be announced before the end of the year or in early 2013, bringing to life a transportation project many believed would never come to fruition.


“We are hoping we will be hearing something in the next few months,” said Solobay, D-Canonsburg.


The highway corridor is needed, he said, to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 376 West in Allegheny County and provide Southpointe with a direct route to the airport. The Marcellus Shale natural gas cracker plant proposed for Beaver County also would benefit by it having better access to the related companies based in Southpointe, he said.


“You could leave here for the airport and never have to go through the crazy mess on the Parkway West,” Solobay said.


Additionally, he said, the road would help to attract new businesses to the highway corridor.


“There are 4,000 acres of property available for development along that (beltway) piece,” he said. “There are a lot of companies waiting for that property to open up. It seems to me to be a win-win all the way around.”


Construction on the beltway’s sister project, the Mon-Fayette Expressway, ground to a halt in July when the Turnpike Commission completed the $882 million, 17-mile Uniontown-to-Brownsville corridor, using up the remainder of the money it had obtained for the both roads. There hasn’t been any construction on the two remaining beltway projects since 2006, when the $225 million, 6-mile corridor known as the Findlay Connector opened to traffic from the airport to Route 22 in Robinson Township, Washington County. A third beltway corridor from Interstate 79 at Cecil to the Mon-Fayette in Gastonville also has not been built.


Solobay said the state has borrowing power to partially fund the $700 million I-79-Route 22 beltway section and that creating a public-private partnership to invest in the road also is under consideration.


At the Aug. 2 Mon-Fayette Expressway ribbon-cutting ceremony, Corbett stressed the importance of completing the missing expressway and beltway sections to meet the transportation needs of the booming Marcellus shale industry.


His comments came a month after he signed a new law permitting the state to partner with companies to come up with the needed $3.5 billion a year to repair and expand state-owned infrastructure. The companies would earn a fixed return on their investments.


Corbett’s office did not reply to a request for a comment on the status of the beltway.


The Turnpike Commission has invested nearly $40 million to purchase 105 houses and other property to create a right-of-way for the I-79-to-Route 22 corridor.


Most of the houses needed were in Cecil Township, and about 20 remain boarded up and await demolition, Cecil manager Donald A. Gennuso said. A number of recent demolition permit applications relating to the beltway have been received by the township, he said.


“I kept saying, this is a road I would never see in my lifetime and I’m in my 40s,” Gennuso said. “That would be good news ultimately. Road construction creates jobs.”


Turnpike Commission spokesman Tom Fox said he is not aware of a decision on funding new construction or a notice to proceed on the final design of the missing beltway and expressway links, including the proposed expressway section from Route 51 into Pittsburgh.


“I think the commission is confident it can hope to get something moving from various sources,” Fox said. “They are working diligently and sooner or later they are going to come to a conclusion.”


It would take years, he said, for any of the projects to get through final design.


Solobay said 2017 is likely the earliest motorists would be able to access the beltway from Cecil to the airport.


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