Beltways, cathedrals take generations to build

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In the Old World, it’s not uncommon to find buildings dating from the Middle Ages, built on foundations laid by Romans 1,500 years earlier. In this country, “old” has a different definition. The David Bradford House, for instance, Washington’s oldest building, was finished in 1788.


We do share with Europe, however, a tendency toward multi-generational construction projects. Great cathedrals in France, Germany and England took sometimes more than a century to complete. And here – in Western Pennsylvania – we have the Southern Beltway.


Though the idea of a high-speed, limited-access highway encircling Pittsburgh had been tossed around 20 years earlier, PennDOT, the state Turnpike Commission and politicians didn’t begin to push the project until the mid 1980s. By the mid 1990s, plans were drawn up for a Southern Beltway that would connect the Pittsburgh International Airport with a point on Interstate 79 south. Because all the proposed routes for the new road cut through populated areas, controversy and protests arose. But by 1996, optimism was high that a suitable route would be chosen and property along it purchased so that construction could begin – as one newspaper article at the time reported – as early as the start of 1998.


It did not.


The Turnpike Commission has spent $50 million purchasing property since that time. Many of the houses it bought have been boarded up for more than a decade. The problem, of course, is that the 13-mile stretch of road from I-79 to Route 22 will cost an estimated $700 million. Many of the delays have resulted from the inability to secure federal and state funding.


An article on the front page of Tuesday’s edition spelled out yet another such delay, and this one can be blamed on our state Legislature.


The Turnpike Commission’s overall plan hit another snag when the state House and Senate couldn’t agree on a transportation bill during last month’s budget negotiations. Legislators have promised to continue debating the bill when they go back to work in September, but the gap between the two bodies is so deep that agreeing on a deal could be impossible. Meanwhile Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges will continue to deteriorate.


The Legislature was also unable to come to an agreement on addressing the state’s pension crisis, or privatizing the state liquor stores. Gov. Tom Corbett could have called them back into special session to deal with the transportation and pension issues, just like his counterpart in Texas called back that legislature to pass a bill with restrictions so tough that most abortion clinics in that state will close.


Corbett did not.


Our full-time lawmakers are on a long summer vacation, resting up from all the work they did not do.


The Southern Beltway is now likely to drop off the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission’s four-year transportation improvement plan. One reason is that the lack of state funding due to the Legislature’s inaction will not help in securing federal financing.


In the meantime, the Turnpike Commission is continuing to acquire property and complete its designs. One of these years, construction might begin. We’ll have to leave it to the next generation to see its completion.


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