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For Whom the Road Tolls

Turnpike Commission swats alternative Mon-Fay plan, but backers still hopeful

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If you believe the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's evaluation of the "Citizens' Plan" -- an alternative to the Mon-Fayette Expressway, released Nov. 20 -- the people who prefer improved Main Streets, "urban boulevards" (like Bigelow) and public transit are a bunch of rosy-eyed idealists whose ideas about transportation and economic development don't work in real life.

 

 On the other hand, if you were partial to the toll road's critics, you might say it's actually the Mon-Fayette Expressway plan itself that doesn't work.

 

Last month, the Turnpike Commission announced it had finished its evaluation of the Citizens' Plan, which consists of dozens of recommended improvements to Mon Valley and South Hills infrastructure, and which proponents argue would do a better job of connecting people and brownfields than a single, limited-access toll highway like the Mon-Fayette. The environmental group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture) is the major author, joined by the Hazelwood Initiative and other community groups.

 

Ironically, the Turnpike Commission's analysis faults the Citizens' Plan for the very things Mon-Fayette critics have complained about: excessive cost and property demolition using eminent domain. The Turnpike Commission believes the alternative plan would cost $2.2 to $3.4 billion more than the already expensive ($4 billion) Mon-Fayette, whose funding depends on an increased state gas tax. Worse, the Turnpike Commission claims, the alternative would displace more homes and businesses -- 760 to 1,600, versus the Mon-Fayette's 537.

 

For example, turnpike officials concluded that PennFuture's plan would wipe out much of the Glassport, Duquesne and Homestead business districts by projecting wider and wider roads over 30 years of increasing traffic -- to meet federal highway-construction standards, they say.

 

That's a willfully misleading version of the alternative plan that's contrary to the spirit of their suggestions, PennFuture counters.

 

PennFuture was unable to fight the Turnpike on their own turf while their plan was being considered. Mon-Fayette opponents couldn't afford to hire their own engineers to calculate the specifics of their plan (although urban planners and architects helped draw it up). Now they can only contend that the Turnpike's long-time consultants, Mackin Engineering, have a conflict of interest when considering any non-Turnpike-generated plan, and that the alternative plan's authors weren't consulted when Mackin made its most damaging assumptions about the Citizens' Plan. Turnpike spokesman Joe Agnello says Mackin "went into this with a blank slate" and that toll-road critics had a chance to make their case at a spring meeting they missed.

 

PennFuture's plan implied that social and environmental considerations should be a part of transportation planning, and that public transportation should be considered. Turnpike officials felt this was not their prerogative. "Social engineering," Agnello called it. "Should we try to change people's habits about how they get themselves around? ... Whether government should try to force people out of single-occupancy vehicles ... these are bigger [questions] that should be addressed in Harrisburg or Washington. This is the best project out there to improve the efficiency of movement, given the habit[s] already in place."

 

PennFuture spokesperson Heather Sage counters that the Mon-Fayette Expressway, first promoted in the 1960s, is not based on present-day realities. "Times have changed, and I find it amazing that the way we would be meeting economic, transportation and community development needs haven't changed."

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