The Mon/Fayette and the Southern Beltway — Boon or Boondoggle?
Hotline, Fall 2001
by Marilyn Skolnick, Transportation Co-Chair, Sierra Club Allegheny Group
No matter what you read these days, there is sure to be an article or study about sustainable growth, traffic congestion, sprawl, new urban development or some variation on these themes. While our region struggles with these subjects, the proposed toll roads — the Mon/Fayette and Southern Beltway — just like the Energizer Bunny, keep rolling along. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) does not take any of the above concerns into consideration — the building of the road is stopped only by a lack of adequate funding.
In order to better understand the why this is happening, we need to briefly review how we have arrived at this point. The PTC can not initiate new projects on its own. Any project must be legislated by the state legislature. In the early 80’s, Governor Casey formed a Toll Road Task Force. The Task Force concluded that there were benefits from transportation links to interstate systems, the construction of new roadways to support economic development, and alternatives to relieve traffic congestion. After reviewing a number of possibilities statewide, it was concluded that the Mon/Fayette and Southern Beltway would be worth building to complete the missing link in southwestern Pennsylvania. The task force also concluded that traffic relief for the Pittsburgh area would be realized. The roads were referred to as expressways.
Act 61 of 1985 mandated that the PTC build the expressway. The term “expressway” is misleading; it is really a toll road, because that is the only kind of road the PTC is permitted to build. To this day most people do not realize that it is a toll road.
The original PTC study indicated that this toll road would be segmented into four segments, each having its own independent value. The concept of segmentation is prohibited by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) because segmentation minimizes the environmental impact a completed project has on an entire region. However, through intensive lobbying, the proposed toll road segmentation was permitted because the study had begun before the ruling against segmentation had been passed. It was grandfathered and permitted to go forward. Act 26 of 1991 added the 30-mile Southern Beltway to the list of projects to be built. This too was segmented into three independent projects.
It soon became obvious that the PTC could not build and maintain additional roads, so since 1992, the state legislature has permitted the PTC to receive a percent of the Oil Company Franchise Tax, and by Act 3 of 1997 a percent of the vehicle registration fees was also given to it. Because these toll roads are considered demonstration projects, the Federal Government earmarked $23.8 million dollars for them in 1991. Since then, it has become apparent that there is still not enough money to complete the projects. While the figure varies depending whom you ask, it appears that the PTC is still about $3 billion short for completing the roads.
The latest proposal for funding the yet unbuilt portions of the toll roads is called Plan H. It proposes that the state enter into a joint effort with the PTC to implement a financing strategy for the remainder of the roads by allocating $106.6 million dollars per year for 20 years from federal highway funding to the state to support bonding of construction cost.
Remembering that the original intent was to support economic development and relieve congestion, it was interesting to note that at the recently held public meetings (where there were very few attendees), it was revealed that the Mon/Fayette would wipe out Turtle Creek, kill what is left of Braddock, and impinge on Wilkins Township’s new commercial development in the name of helping economic development. As far as relieving traffic congestion with the branch that is proposed to enter Monroeville during the holidays, the existing Monroeville roads have long since reached their capacity and no amount of the suggested synchronizing of the traffic lights will help relieve the congestion. The entrance into Pittsburgh has yet to be decided. No solution proposed to date will help the congestion problem there. These problems are just a start; more will be revealed as the study goes forward. There are a number of municipalities that have passed resolutions opposing these two projects. Many environmental problems encountered have been conveniently glossed over, especially the destroyed wetlands.
I repeat — is this a boon or a boondoggle? I leave it up to you to decide.