Officials lobby gov on Route 219 project

Posted on April 16th, 2012

The Tribune-Democrat (April 15, 2012)

SOMERSET—With the victory of a four-lane Route 219 between Somerset and Meyersdale within reach, but not in hand, advocates of the long-elusive road project took their case to Gov. Tom Corbett last week.

Actually the meeting, which included members of the North/South Appalachian Highway Coalition, was with Kathleen Duffy Bruder, Corbett’s deputy chief of staff, and Jim Ritzman, PennDOT’s secretary of planning.

But highway supporters Friday were optimistic that the project and the need to act quickly will get to the governor, said Dave Moe, coordinator of the North/South Appalachian Highway Coalition.

“It was obvious that the governor has never been briefed on this,” Moe said. “They said they would brief the governor and let us know.”

At issue is the 11-mile portion of highway, now a winding two-lane stretch linking the four-lane 219 at Somerset to the four-lane bypass around Meyersdale.

The $350 million price tag can be met largely using specially set-aside funds through the Appalachian Regional Commission. But the state’s 20 percent share has been difficult to obtain.

Expenses that already have been paid amount to about 10 percent of the share, meaning the state would have to come up with $35 million to leverage nine times that amount, said Henry Cook, president and CEO of Somerset Trust Co.

Because of budget constraints, PennDOT has had trouble obtaining the $35 million, and it seems the only way to obtain those funds would be through toll credits.

Cook serves on the Continential 1 board, a multistate, multination group working for an improved 1,500-mile direct route between Toronto and Miami. He said Route 219 supporters have concerns that attempts to reverse legislation regarding use of toll credits will fail and the state will need to come up with the 10 percent.

“Our government at this point is completely unpredictable,” Cook said. “The animosity makes everything coming out of Washington totally unpredictable.”

Cook’s reference is to successful efforts by federal legislators in the region to include language in the pending federal transportation legislation that would allow use of toll credits as a match for the federal Appalachian Regional Commission money.

The U.S. Highway Administration said toll credits are earned when the state or other entity funds a transportation investment with toll revenues earned on existing facilities, which here is the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Over the years, PennDOT had used toll credits to match the Appalachian Regional Commission money for those sections of Route 219 already completed.

In the last federal transportation bill more than five years ago, the law was changed. Use of toll credits on ARC-funded transportation work was outlawed and work on 219 slowed considerably.

The U.S. Senate last month passed a two-year transportation bill that allows toll credits as a match for ARC money, but the House has been unable to reach a consensus, especially with funding the bill.

While work on the corridor has slowed, PennDOT has continued with design and preliminary work.

PennDOT District 9 portfolio manager Jim Pruss said the project is shovel-ready with the exception of a couple of water discharge permits.

“That’s really where all of my efforts are being focused right now,” he said of the approvals required from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Utilities have been relocated along the corridor and rights of way have been acquired, with the exception of three mining operations. PennDOT has agreed to allow those operations to continue until construction begins, Pruss said.

If the state continues to reject the coalition’s efforts to have it come up with the $35 million, members at least want a promise from Corbett that Route 219 will be atop the list if and when toll credits become available.

Pennsylvania has $500 million in unused toll credits.

Some leaders from West Virginia and other Appalachian states want that money made available to their states.

Efforts last year by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and others proved unsuccessful, but Cook is convinced they are not giving up.

“They fired the first shot, but they’ll keep coming back,” he said.