Southern Beltway in ‘limbo’ again

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Construction of the Southern Beltway toll road is on hold until state legislators can agree on a multi-year transportation funding bill needed to boost revenue for infrastructure and transit projects.


Even though state officials announced late last year that the Pennsylvania Turnpike had resurrected the long-stalled, 13-mile toll road that would link Interstate 79 to Route 22 and cost $700 million, the lack of an agreement on the funding bill is leaving the project once again in limbo.


“The Turnpike is re-evaluating any decision about moving into final construction until this transportation funding plan plays out,” Turnpike spokesman Tom Fox said Monday. “If that legislation would’ve passed, it would’ve provided a lot more income to the Turnpike … and we would’ve had a much more stabile financial plan to come forward to them (for the Southern Beltway).”


That overall funding plan hit a snag when the state House and Senate were unable to agree on the multi-pronged transportation bill during last month’s budget negotiations. State officials have vowed to continue debating the issue in the fall, but the revenue chasm between the two legislative bodies could make it nearly impossible to reach a deal.


The Turnpike Commission has invested about $50 million to purchase and demolish 100 properties and is actively pursuing dozens of other partial acquisitions needed to construct the toll road. In addition, Fox said engineers are still on target to complete the final design in two years.


“We have always had the money to do final design, and that is proceeding on pace,” Fox said.


The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission was poised to place the Southern Beltway project on its four-year transportation improvement plan, but the funding debacle scuttled that initiative. Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, who is on the SPC’s executive board, said they decided in May to delay taking action, but could reconsider later.


“It was in limbo, and we still don’t know what is going on with it,” Maggi said. “The will is there with the SPC board, because it will certainly help the region. I think there will be something, but we just don’t know for sure. We need it.”


Being including in the region’s four-year transportation plan does not indicate the project’s likelihood of moving forward, but Fox said it would help the Turnpike solicit funding sources from the federal government. He added that the proposed transportation plan could give the Turnpike additional money by lifting the state’s oil franchise tax, and it would stop the agency from being required to make annual payments to PennDOT as specified in a 2007 transportation bill.


“We’re taking a lot of money out of our bottom line, and that’s a substantial component to the debt we keep accruing,” Fox said of Act 44. “We are putting out a lot of money. From the Turnpike’s standpoint, the sooner we can eliminate that obligation (to PennDOT), the more money we have to do a lot of things.”


The debate on the transportation bill will likely restart in September, although it could become muddled with other major issues such as pension reform and privatizing the liquor stores and lottery system. State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said he thinks the Southern Beltway will still be completed, but the speed of construction will undoubtedly be slowed if the Legislature can’t agree on a bill.


“If we don’t do something on transportation this fall, it would have an impact,” Solobay said. “I just hope that when we get back in September there can be serious movement to get something done and not get it caught up in the other venues that the governor is discussing.”


However, movement seems more likely in the Senate, which pushed for larger revenues to fund road and transit projects. State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, is skeptical his House colleagues will agree on a deal, but is hopeful that won’t impact the Southern Beltway.


“It was an apples and oranges comparison, so I don’t think it would really impact what is happening with the Beltway,” White said of the transit debate. “The Turnpike Commission is the one driving the ship. They’re the ones in control.”


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