Apocalyptic predictions didn’t dissuade the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission from announcing Friday that it’s reawakening plans for the next leg of a long-stalled Southern Beltway section linking Southpointe to the Pittsburgh International Airport.
“The Mayan calender may have ended today, but a new calendar begins for the Southern Beltway project,” said state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil. “It is still going to take time, but I’m looking forward to this project advancing and the many jobs and other opportunities for our region that should come with it.”
The second leg of the Southern Beltway, known as the Route 22 to Interstate 79 project, will add 13 miles of toll road to the southern end of the existing 6-mile Findlay Connector, starting at Route 22 in Washington County and heading southeast in Allegheny County near McDonald to tie into I-79 at the county line.
“It bypasses all of the wild and crazy log jams that occur often times on the parkway,” said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg.
Still in the design phase, the project carries a price tag of roughly $632.5 million. Construction is slated to begin as soon as 2014 and is expected to take about six years to complete, according to a Turnpike Commission news release. It will be the first construction on the two remaining beltway projects since 2006.
“When opened to traffic, the Route 22 to I-79 project will create economic opportunities in Findlay, Robinson, Mount Pleasant, Cecil and North and South Fayette townships,” said Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman William K. Lieberman. “It will provide better access to sites being developed by the Allegheny County Airport Authority and a direct link from I-79 to more than 4,000 acres of private, untapped commercial and industrial lands.”
Solobay said he believes the majority of the developable land is in Washington County.
Both Solobay and White hailed the Turnpike Commission’s announcement as an early Christmas present for the region.
“Their commitment to seeking out funding opportunities and never giving up on this project should be commended, especially with scarce resources and high competition for infrastructure dollars for many worthy projects,” said White. “Infrastructure improvements create jobs and commerce, and I’m optimistic that’s exactly what we’ll have here.”
The commission expects the project to have nearly a $2.7 billion impact on the state’s economy and create more than 20,000 full- and part-time jobs.
The project may also help with the region’s courtship of gas and oil industry giant Royal Dutch Shell, which is considering building a multibillion dollar ethane cracker plant near Monaca. Solobay said the Shell project was surely part of the discussion, but may not have been the deciding factor. He said hearing about the amount of available land for development is what “raised some eyebrows” among lawmakers and other state officials.
“I don’t think anybody realized that there was that much opportunity as far as economic development possibilities on this stretch,” Solobay said. “There’s no doubt this will help things over at Starpointe.”
With regard to funding, the Turnpike Commission states the project will be paid for through a mix of state tax revenues, bonds and federal loans without spending any toll dollars.
In late August, state Rep. Peter Daley, D-California, called for the immediate resignation of two top Turnpike Commission officials on grounds that the agency’s debt — between $7 billion and $8 billion — had multiplied significantly under their leadership.
Solobay said the commission’s asset-to-debt ratio isn’t as grim as some might think and he doesn’t anticipate it being a concern.
To date, the Turnpike Commission has invested about $50 million to purchase 100 properties and is actively pursuing 60 partial acquisitions needed to construct the Route 22 to I-79 project.
The final portion of the Southern Beltway will link I-79 to the Mon-Fayette Expressway, which saw the completion of a $882 million, 17-mile Uniontown-to-Brownsville corridor in July. During an August ribbon-cutting ceremony for the latter, Gov. Tom Corbett stressed the importance of completing the missing beltway and expressway sections to meet the transportation needs of the booming Marcellus Shale industry.