Route 219 south project clears hurdle

Posted on May 21st, 2013

Trib Live (May 21, 2013 )

Work could begin this summer on grading a path through southern Somerset County for a four-lane Route 219 between Somerset and Meyersdale now that federal environmental regulators are not going to insist on a more extensive review of the environmental impact of the new highway, state and federal officials said Monday.

With the Environmental Protection Agency not seeking a higher level of environmental review from the Army’s Civil Works office, it opens the way for the last environmental permits to be issued to the state Department of Transportation for the $300 million project, said U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg.

PennDOT has said the 11.5-mile route would be west of the existing two-lane highway and the state already has acquired the rights of way. The first phase, moving about 10 million cubic yards of fill, could start this summer and the highway could be completed in four to five years, a PennDOT official said. Trees along the proposed roadway have been cut back.

Building the connection between Somerset and Meyersdale is regarded as key to completing Route 219 as a four-lane expressway from Route 22 in Cambria County to the Maryland border and Interstate 68.

“I believe it will have a huge economic impact in one of the least economically developed regions in the (congressional) district,” said Shuster, whose district is made up of parts of Fayette, Somerset, Bedford, Blair, Cambria and Indiana counties.

“I think it will be an upgrade for the greater region of Western Pennsylvania,” Shuster added.

Gov. Tom Corbett said in a statement that the project “is critical to our success in growing the economy and creating jobs in the Southern Alleghenies and we are glad to see it move one step closer.”

While PennDOT is strapped for funds for existing highways and bridges, Shuster said the state has pledged to use revenue from tolls for its 20 percent share of the project.

Shuster said he anticipates that an environmental permit could be issued as early as Wednesday. Once it gets the permit, PennDOT could begin the bidding process and award a contract in July.

But spokespersons for the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection said their agencies still are processing the permit.

The Corps of Engineers is drafting a final permit for PennDOT and cannot say when it will be done, said Sheila Tunney, a corps spokeswoman in Pittsburgh.

“Basically, PennDOT will have to review the permit and have to agree to it (the conditions). It’s not a done thing,” Tunney said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit for storm-water discharges for the grading that will be done, but still is working on the permit, said John Poister, a department spokesman in Pittsburgh. “It’s usually fairly comprehensive” and the state is “pretty careful” about reviewing the impact on wetlands and streams, Poister said.

Although the EPA did not call for further environmental review, it told the Corps of Engineers in a May 16 letter that it received comments regarding the potential for significant impact on the watershed of the Casselman River, which flows into the Youghiogheny River at Confluence. The EPA believes there are “aquatic resources of national importance” within the highway construction area, but the Corps of Engineers disagrees.

The EPA wants the Army Corps of Engineers to “fully consider the impact” of burying “very good quality streams” on downstream water quality. About 17,000 linear feet of streams will be buried and relocated, including 7,200 feet of streams that PennDOT said would be temporarily impacted by the project.

Shuster defended spending federal dollars to improve that stretch of highway, even though the PennDOT 2011 traffic counts show only 9,600 vehicles daily pass through the Somerset interchange of the expressway, and just 2,200 vehicles daily use the road at Meyersdale.

While Route 219 north of Carrolltown in Cambria County is mostly two-lane to Bradford in McKean County, Shuster said there is no initiative to convert it into a four-lane expressway through the rural sections of Cambria, Elk and McKean counties. The focus is on completing the southern end of the expressway to the Maryland border.

By Joe Napsha