Long wait for Mon-Fayette completion, not so much for I-79 widening

Harry Funk
Observer Reporter

Finishing the Mon-Fayette Expressway probably will take a couple of more decades, but improvements to Interstate 79 in Cecil and South Fayette townships are well on the way.

A public meeting Thursday at Peters Township Municipal Building provided details for two major regional transportation projects, with the end date of the Mon-Fayette connecting Morgantown, W.Va., with Monroeville targeted for 2036. By contrast, widening a three-mile stretch of I-79 to three lanes in each direction, at an estimated cost of $23.1 million, could wrap up by 2020.

Both projects are included in the long-range transportation plan of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the regional planning agency that conducted the public meeting.

“They’ve been on the drawing board, but the good news is that we’ve actually been able to identify funding to advance the projects quicker than we actually had them lined up in the plan,” Doug Smith, commission transportation planning director, said.

As a result, the SPC intends to amend both its long-range plan and 2017-20 Transportation Improvement Program to reflect the changes in expediency. The commission will receive public comment on the projects through March 10, and SPC commissioners plan to vote on the amendments March 20.

Plans for completing the Mon-Fayette Expressway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission-operated toll road that now has its northern terminus in Jefferson Hills Borough, received a financial boost from state Act 89 of 2013. The legislation provides for revenue generation specifically toward transportation projects.

The expressway project once called for an extension into the city of Pittsburgh, and at that point the total cost of expansion had a $4 billion estimate.

“By taking this piece off and by being able to make some design changes because that piece is gone, it’s reduced the project in half cost-wise,” Smith said.

Plans call for the first part of the 14-mile stretch to be built southward from Interstate 76 in Monroeville. The second section would extend north from Route 51 in Jefferson Hills, and the final leg is to include a bridge spanning the Monongahela River.

“It’s not like they’re going to go out and build the thing overnight,” Smith said about the 19 years until the anticipated finish. “It takes time to deliver a project of that magnitude.”

The much-sooner widening of I-79, from near the Southpointe exit to the Alpine Road overpass, is a joint venture between the Turnpike Commission, in conjunction with its Southern Beltway interchange project, and the state Department of Transportation.

“We have three lanes north of Bridgeville, and it just makes sense while they’re building this project to incorporate a third lane,” PennDOT District 12 executive Joseph Szczur said.

As for the Southern Beltway, the Turnpike Commission is working on construction to connect I-79 with Route 22 in Robinson Township, Washington County. The final portion of the beltway is to extend east from Cecil to Union Township, but Smith said that is not likely to occur until after completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway.