SOMERSET — Route 219 is rising from the dead.
Just three weeks after state officials declared that completion of the highway essentially had been scrapped, the state Legislature reversed course today, budgeting $35 million for the long-awaited road.
It will be enough money to initially match $46 million in federal funding, although local lawmakers will continue to push for changes in the federal funding formula.
"I like to think we snatched victory from the jaws of death," Somerset County Commissioner Jimmy Marker said today in an impromptu Independence Day press conference at the end of the four-lane highway in Somerset Township.
Late Thursday, a state Senate committee approved the $35 million budget allocation following a week of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying.
The funding can be used to leverage more than $175 million in federal funds for the highway, said state Sens. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar, and John Wozniak, D-Johnstown.
The full House and Senate were expected to act on the budget as soon as this afternoon.
As the state has wrestled with its budget for the past week, commissioners orchestrated a last-minute blitz to have the $35 million included in a $350 million PennDOT bond issue.
The pressure came from all sides: Gov. Ed Rendell; Kasunic and Wozniak; state Reps. Bob Bastian, R-Somerset, and Tom Yewcic, D-Jackson Township; U.S. Reps. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, and Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg; state Sen. Arlen Spector; and Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason of Johnstown and former GOP chairwoman Eileen Melvin of Somerset.
"This is akin to a Hail Mary legislative pass,"ù County Commissioner Chairwoman Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.
Three weeks ago, PennDOT said a $9 million, 20 percent match to federal funding has been removed from the list on projects in PennDOT's 12-year plan.
That decision was the apparent death knell for 35 years worth of effort to complete the four-lane highway from Somerset to Interstate 68 in Maryland.
But though prospects seemed to be dim, Tokar-Ickes said local officials weren't about to concede defeat.
"We have had to become such eternal optimists on the completion of Route 219," she said. "I was never giving up on this road."
In January, the commissioners learned that national legislators decided in 2005 that toll credits can not be used as a state match for federal funding, eliminating a mechanism that could have been used to mach available federal funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Tokar-Ickes said the county will push for the toll credits to be reinserted into the next federal transportation bill, which is expected to be passed by 2010.
The $35 million from the state "should get us through the next few years, as far as the state match," Tokar-Ickes said.
"Now, we're going to be working together to get the toll-credit issue resolved on the federal level."
Completion of the highway between Somerset and Maryland carries a pricetag of $600 million, including $350 million for 12-miles between Somerset and Meyersdale.
"My legislative colleagues and I have pursued funding for this roadway for decades," Kasunic said in a statement. "This infusion of state and federal dollars will make Route 219 safer and help spark economic development throughout our region."
Wozniak agreed, saying the completing the highway will provide a critical link for regional businesses to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
"This will strengthen our existing businesses and attract greater interest and investment from outside our region," said Wozniak, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
For the past six months, county officials have spearheaded a campaign to save the highway. They met with Rendell in May, and sent more than 14,000 e-mails to the governor and transportation officials urging the state to reconsider plans to pull the funding.
Commissioner John Vatavuk said the lobbying became an all-out blitz in the past week, though few outside political circles knew about it.
"It's the biggest thing to happen to Somerset County since 219 was started," Vatavuk said.
SOMERSET — Route 219 is rising from the dead.
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