With spring just around the corner, a major hurdle for construction of Route 219 from Somerset to Meyersdale has been crossed, but a couple more things are needed before dirt can fly.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed late last week that it has issued a “biological opinion” in favor of allowing the $300 million project to proceed, biologist Robert Anderson said.
“That’s comparable to our issuing a permit. We’re giving them permission to kill, harm or harass Indiana bats,” he said from his State College office.
The project to extend the four-lane limited access highway to just north of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border has been seven or more years in the making. With funding in hand, two permits from the state and one federal permit are the only remaining hurdles.
“We should be pretty close to getting them. I’d say in the next 60 days,” PennDOT District 9 engineer Tom Prestash said.
Still needed are water-related permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and clearance from the Army Corps of Engineers.
The permit review and approval by Fish and Wildlife came in a surprisingly short time, Anderson said.
The agency has four months for permit review. This review started in early January and was approved by the end of the month, he said.
But the go-ahead came with an agreement that PennDOT put $800,000 in the Indiana Bat Conservation Fund, Anderson said.
“Using the money, the Pennsylvania Game Commission will go out and take steps to protect the bat,” he said. “It assures that we can protect the bat somewhere else.”
Word of the federal Fish and Wildlife approval is significant, said Dave Moe, coordinator of the North/South Appalachian Highway Coalition.
“It’s great news. We’re moving forward,” Moe said late last week. “That’s a good thing, because that means they can go ahead.”
PennDOT is still awaiting the approval of two permits from DEP, both dealing with water issues, said DEP spokesman John Poister.
Still under review are a water discharge permit and a water obstructions and encroachment permit, he said.
As late at last week, PennDOT officials were providing additional information to DEP and more is needed, Poister said.
“I wouldn’t say we’ll have immediate approval, but we’re in the review stages on these issues and are aware of PennDOT’s desire to move this along a little bit,” he said.
While PennDOT awaits the final permits, it plans to bring in a timbering contractor to begin felling what amounts to 200 acres of trees along the proposed corridor.
“Over the next 60 days, we’ll definitely get the tree cutting done,” Prestash said.
Timing of the project is essential because of the status of the Indiana bat, which is a federally designated endangered species, officials said.
The state has until the end of March to do all of the tree cutting for this first phase of the work, Prestash said.
It is at the end of March that the Indiana bat ends its underground winter hibernation and begins nesting in the trees, Anderson said.
PennDOT anticipates that the timbering can be done in about 30 days and requires only that the trees are cut down and lying on the ground. The cleanup of the lumber can be completed after that.
The $300 million needed to link Somerset with Meyersdale via a four-lane was assured when federal legislation was passed last year eliminating the need for a 20 percent match from the state.
Route 219 south from Ebensburg is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, one of six such corridors in the state designed by Congress a half-century ago as part of the war on poverty along the multistate mountain range.
MAP-21, the federal highway legislation signed into law in July, removes the requirement that ADHS projects get a 20 percent match from the states, ending a seven-year battle between state and federal legislators over the use of toll credits, Moe said.
Prestash is confident that the construction project can be put out to bid as early as May, after the permits are in hand.
PennDOT’s plans call for moving 10 million cubic yards of earth for the Somerset to Meyersdale work, a first phase that will take about two years.
Construction will take another two years, with paving completed in the fifth and final year of the project.
Moe said he has been waiting a long time and is content to wait a little longer.
“The progress on this has been slow, but we’re getting there,” Moe said. “Obviously, we’re like everyone else, just waiting for the final permits so we can move into ground-breaking.”
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