The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 11, 2013

Officials: Money is there to finish Route 219

Kathy Mellott

JOHNSTOWN — Comparing the undesignated money in the Pennsylvania Appalachian Development Highway System fund with unfinished corridors statewide makes clear that completing the southern link of Route 219 is the best use of that money, suggest supporters of the four-lane, limited access north-south highway.

“Of all the Appalachian miles in Pennsylvania that need completed, no section is as far along as Route 219,” said Ed Silvetti, executive director of the regional Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission.

Silvetti is also a member of Continential 1, the bi-national advocacy group pushing for a continuous interstate from Toronto to Miami, a 1,500-mile corridor, supporters say, that would be an economic generator in two countries, eight states and for millions of people.

According to the math offered by Silvetti and Dave Moe, coordinator of the North/South Appalachian Highway Corridor, based in Cumberland, Md., Pennsylvania has more than $500 million in its ADHS fund. Of that total, $305 million is promised for completion of the 12-mile stretch of Route 219 from Somerset to Meyersdale.

The remaining $200-plus million likely would pay for much of the estimated $250 million in design and construction costs of the final leg of Route 219 in Pennsylvania, a 3- to 4-mile stretch from Meyersdale to the Maryland line and Route 68.

It is the only project in the eight ADHS corridors in Pennsylvania that could be significantly completed using the special pot of money.

“I agree with Ed,” Moe said Friday.

The possibility of having ADHS money pay for much of the last few miles of 219 in Pennsylvania may be even greater in light of today’s economy, Moe said.

“I don’t think any projects are going to come in at their previous estimates,” he said, referencing an out-of-state bridge replacement estimated at $43 million received a low bid of $24 million.

With everyone scrambling for transportation dollars, that special pot of money set aside for specified highways in the 13 states along the Appalachian Mountains is getting a lot of attention, especially with the last federal transportation bill eliminating the requirement that ADHS money be used for predesignated corridors.

In Pennsylvania, the eight highway corridors that qualify for the ADHS money were designated by congressional action more than 40 years ago, and the list could not be altered without congressional action.

The long-standing rule was that the states came up with 20 percent of a project cost and ADHS money made up 80 percent.

When, in 2005, federal legislation outlawed the use of toll credits – reflecting dollars spent on state highway projects with no federal reimbursement – Pennsylvania and Route 219 hit a brick wall because the 20 percent needed to do the Somerset-to-Meyersdale section was not available.

Through efforts of U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, and others, the current federal surface transportation bill was changed to allow 100 percent ADHS money to be used on designated highways, including Route 219.

PennDOT is eagerly awaiting final approval at the federal and state levels on permit applications, mostly involving water issues, before letting bids on the 12-mile section.

State officials say they want to get construction underway on the funded portion of the highway before turning their attention to the unfunded final leg.

Shuster, in a telephone interview with The Tribune-Democrat late last week, said he is planning for a summer bid letting on the project and for earth to be moved before winter.

The five-term congressman reaffirmed his support for 219, which he said has not wavered since he came into office more than a decade ago.

“I’ve been working on this issue for the past 10 years,” he said.

But also fighting hard for any ADHS money are legislators and supporters of Route 15, an eligible corridor in northern Pennsylvania near the New York border, Shuster said.

Through Shuster’s time in office, a lot has changed. He has been a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for years, but often joked that he held the seat near the door.

That’s not the case anymore.

In December, his position at the table changed when he captured the chairman’s seat of the powerful transportation committee, a post held for many years by his father, Bud Shuster.

“I’m going to be the person that’s writing the next highway bill,” he said when speaking of his support of Route 219.

That process will begin later this year and be carried out in earnest in 2014, he said.

Completion of the lower end of Route 219 is a game-changer for southern Cambria County and Johnstown along with Somerset and the northern end of Maryland in the area of Interstate 68, Shuster said.

It matters so much, Shuster said, that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in late March offered Gov. Tom Corbett Maryland transportation money to pay for a  feasibility study on Pennsylvania’s end of 219.

Maryland is ready to proceed on the final 3 or 4 miles from I-68 to the Pennsylvania line, but needs to know where Route 219 will be coming out at the border, said Brenda Smith, executive director of the Greater Cumberland Committee.

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