U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, stood at the dead end of a highway – against the backdrop of some downed trees and yellow construction vehicles – and optimistically envisioned the future.
He spoke about an 11-mile, limited-access, four-lane highway linking Meyersdale and Somerset.
When completed, the new stretch of U.S. Route 219 is expected to spark economic development and improve safety conditions for drivers. But right now, the main construction work has yet to start. It is scheduled to get underway in September. On Tuesday, Shuster and other dignitaries gathered for a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony where the current four-lane portion of Route 219 ends in Somerset and turns into a smaller, winding, slow-moving two-lane road.
“This Route 219, it’s not just a wider highway, this is the future,” said Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Elected officials – from the federal, state and local levels – along with business leaders have been trying to get the road expanded for decades.
“People have worked on this for many, many, many years, and finally the day is here for us to celebrate the groundbreaking,” said Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk. “It’s a small victory, but we’re there.”
State Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar, added, “This truly was a partnership.”
The project, which is expected to cost approximately $300 million, will be federally funded through the Appalachian Regional Commission. Shuster fought to have the state released from having to cover 20 percent of the cost.
“Let me put a shout out to the millions, the hundreds of millions of motorists in the United States of America purchasing billions of dollars in gasoline, because it was those nickels, those pennies and those dimes that brought a project to Somerset County here in west-central Pennsylvania. Without them, it could never ever have been done,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.
Construction workers will build six new bridges, move 10 million cubic yards of earth and create two new interchanges.
“We’ve been trying to be masters of our domain for thousands of years,” said state Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Berlin. “We’ve built great works. This is a great work. It is art. We are going to hurl concrete and iron hundreds of feet above a valley, and then we will all benefit from it. With His divine hand and our technology, we’re going to make a big difference with this road.”
One of the reasons for building a new four-lane portion of road is to help increase commerce and personal travel into the region from places such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “This is a great opportunity for Somerset County and further up for Cambria County to continue to reach out and grow,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.
Expanding the road is expected to have a major economic impact throughout the county and beyond.
“This is indeed a great day, not only for Somerset County and for this region, but for the entire commonwealth as well,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley.
The road is expected to take five years to complete.
Many of the same people involved in the Meyersdale-Somerset project are already looking at how to get a similar four-lane expansion built for Route 219 between Meyersdale and where it connects to Interstate 68 in Maryland.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.