Locals: Transportation bill change critical to 219 funding

Posted on July 13th, 2015

By Kecia Bal, The Tribune-Democrat

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Without a change to how federal highway dollars are spent, funding could be a long way off for the last stretch of Route 219 in Somerset County.

While the last federal transportation bill, Map-21 – set to expire July 31 – opened the way for funding for the section of the road currently under construction, it also altered how Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS) funds are spent, allowing states to use that pot of money on any state road project instead of only on an ADHS-designated highway.

The result is that 219, which is an ADHS-designated roadway, likely will be bumped down on the list behind other, higher-priority projects, according to Vince Greenland, PennDOT’s assistant District 9 executive designer.

“Map-21 was good and bad,” he said. “The good part was the prior bill said that states had to put a 20 percent match on ADHS money. Two-nineteen wasn’t going to go until they allowed toll credits, which means we can use toll credits to fund projects 100 percent federal. Through a lot of people’s efforts, the toll credit language was put in and enabled the state to use 100 percent federal.

“But it also said ADHS money in the future can be spent anywhere, based on the priority of the state.”

Other top projects have hefty price tags, Greenland said, such as a $670 million, 13-mile, four-lane highway project in Snyder County that PennDOT reactivated in 2013 because the new funding stream had been identified.

‘Specialized money’

Work on the current stretch of 219 to Meyersdale is in its second of three phases, and any savings from those phases would go back to the ADHS funding for statewide projects, Greenland said.

Remaining is about 5.5 miles between Meyersdale and the Maryland state border, where work is beginning that will complete the span between Interstate 68 in Maryland and the Pennsylvania border, funded with $90 million in ADHS funding allocated to Maryland.

PennDOT outlines projects statewide through a Transportation Improvement Program, updated every four years – but the four-county region that includes Somerset County will have around $50 million per year to split for all road projects in those counties, not nearly enough for the last leg of 219, estimated to cost $250 million to $300 million, Greenland said.

“The issue is that, for the local planning organization, we don’t have enough money through our budget to do 219,” he said. “That’s why it has to come from specialized money outside.”

Local leaders have asked that the new bill ­– scheduled to be signed at the end of this month, though the deadline could be extended again – be changed back so that 219 has a better chance.

That change may be the best hope for finishing the road’s missing link, according to Somerset County Commissioners’ Board Chairman John Vatavuk, who also sits on the local board that helps choose projects through the state’s transportation program.

“The change to Map-21, opened (competition for ADHS money) to bridge repairs, other roads, just about anything as long as it’s a state road,” he said. “It was a double-edged sword. We got toll credit language so we could fund the work happening now, but by opening it up to other projects, there’s a lot more competition for the money this way.”

‘Our best hope’

Vatavuk was among a group of local leaders who went to Washington D.C. to ask that the portion of Map-21 that broadened the competition be changed back.

“Our best hope would be to have ADHS funding restored strictly for ADHS,” he said. “That would help 219 more than anything else.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, helped make the change that unlocked toll credits and made way for the current construction.

Shuster said he has been in contact with the head of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over funding for a transportation bill.

“As Chairman (Paul) Ryan continues his work in the Ways & Means Committee to find a funding solution, I and my staff continue to working hard every day on this legislation, and meeting with all interested stakeholders, local and state officials,” Shuster said in a statement.