Years of planning, prodding and lobbying are paying off for residents of Somerset County and the Johnstown region with work about to begin on the $3.5 million construction of a new Route 219 superhighway.
Earthmoving equipment and public officials with shovels in hand will descend on the Somerset area Tuesday for the symbolic groundbreaking, launching construction of a four-lane limited access highway from Somerset to Meyersdale.
Work on the 11-mile stretch will begin in the fall, prompting highway officials to express optimistic views that traffic will be rolling on the new pavement within five years.
“When you look at this project, it’s been a long time in coming. We started buying property back in the 1970s,” said Thomas Prestash, PennDOT District 9 executive.
When completed, the highway will fill a gap in the north-south corridor, heating up the push for money to complete the stretch south of Meyersdale to the Maryland line and Route 68.
But for Tuesday, all eyes will be on the work at hand, a project funded through Appalachian Regional Commission highway funds, releasing the state from any percentage of the cost.
Taking the spotlight will be U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Shuster was successful in leading the fight to have federal legislation included in the most recent transportation bill that freed the state from providing a 20 percent match for the highway.
Federal money has for several years been available to fund the project, which is part of the congressionally approved Appalachian Development System. It was Pennsylvania’s lack of state share that stymied progress.
U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, will be on hand for Tuesday’s ceremony and will accompany Shuster prior to the ceremony on a caravan along the route to showcase several aspects of the project.
Dave Moe, coordinator of the North/South Highway Coalition, recalls the fight to get full federal funds, the trips to Washington and efforts by officials from three states.
“So, in a way this is a celebration of that,” Moe said. “I’m happy and proud to have been a part of that, but the job is not done.”
Moe and Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk will be on hand Tuesday for what Vatavuk thinks will be a crowning day for his county.
He thinks a couple hundred people will come out for the ceremony, but is hopeful for a much larger crowd, say 77,742 – the full county population.
“There are a lot of people who have worked on this project over the years,” Vatavuk said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, weighing in on the project, said moving it forward was not easy, but the result will vastly improve infrastructure in the region and contribute to growing southwestern Pennsylvania’s economy.
Along with entertainment by the Meyersdale High School band, the Somerset County Honor Guard will also be on hand for the ceremony
Joseph B. Fay Co. of suburban Pittsburgh was the low bidder on this initial phase at $110.5 million.
Prestash said PennDOT recently awarded the contract to Fay with the final step, the notice to proceed, expected
Some erosion and control issues are being worked out and the handling of 10 million cubic yards of material that will have to be moved from the site is being addressed.
Prestash said there is some capacity within PennDOT’s right of way.
“We want to use as much of the material as possible, so it is a balanced job,” he said.
Kathy Mellott covers transportation issues for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.