Mon Valley association gets five expressions of interest for Mon Fayette Exwy 51 to Pittsburgh

July 4, 2007
By Peter Samuel

The Mon Valley Progress Association (MVPA) has received five expressions of interest in participating in a toll concession to help finance and build the final 24 mile (39km) segment of the Mon Fayette Expressway (MFE) in Pittsburgh PA called 51-376. Association executive Joe Kirk says the names and details won't be released at this stage but they are "major companies." He wants his association's advisory panel to study the letters and have discussions with the groups and get a clearer idea of what they might contribute before releasing more information - in a month or two.

To push the MFE/51-376 PPP, Kirk's Mon Valley group has formed a broader coalition Expressway Partnership Initiative, early joiners being the Regional Business Alliance and Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Mon Fayette Expressway (MFE), designated state route 43, goes about 100km (60 miles) south of Pittsburgh to I-68 which is a few miles inside West Virginia. It is rugged country.

The unbuilt segment of the MFE is known as "51 to 376" (MFE/51-376) named for linking state highway 51 to I-376, also known as Parkway East. MFE/51-376 forms a 'Y' on top of the built or under-construction segments of the MFE to the south.

A route and conceptual design has been finalized and permitting completed for MFE/51-376, and a federal record of decision obtained - meaning the project is ready now for detailed engineering design and construction. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission paid for and supervised that final route selection, project development and permitting over the past twelve years. But the Commission says the project will cost $3.6b and is not viable without tax-based subsidies that are not in prospect. Tolls would pay for less than a third of the cost.

Kirk moved for PPP after PTC said project on hold

Once the Turnpike announced it was not proceeding any further because of lack of public funding, Joe Kirk's organization launched the probe of private sector interest. His association has been a champion of the larger MFE road for 40 years, Kirk himself has been in charge of the effort for 20 years. A very precisely spoken and dogged advocate, Kirk and his followers have already succeeded in gaining political support for construction of southern segments and for design and permitting for the last and most difficult close-in section 51-376. Difficult political compromises were successfully made, and environmentalist opposition assuaged or overcome.

They are also championing the Southern Beltway which is due to spur off the MFE and arc clockwise 51km (32 miles) around the southwest fringe of the metro area ending at Pittsburgh airport. The far westerly segment PA60 at the airport to US22 opened Oct 2006.

But the MFE/51-376 is on the shelf for now.

Kirk hopes that a public private partnership (PPP) might be able to reduce the cost of MFE/51-376 to perhaps $3b and that the prospective $45m/yr starting toll revenue (our estimate not Kirk's) and economic development rights might attract a major chunk of private capital, which together with some state and local grants might help fund the segment.

Competition from Brimmeier's 376 El

Part of the traffic on the northern arms of the MFE 51-376 'Y' could be overflow traffic from the heavily congested east-west I-376 Parkway East. However the Turnpike's CEO Joe Brimmeier has recently championed a Tampa-style reversible elevated along I-376 and the Busway East (376 El) to provide extra east-west capacity. The elevated would reduce the need for the MFE/51-376 northern arms.

Joe Kirk says he isn't discouraged by this. He points out the 376 El is just an idea at this stage and would need to go through extensive project development, costing and permitting. And he says MFE/51-376 serves a different purpose from the 376 El. It serves to tie together riverside communities and connect them to the interstate highways north and south.

Kirk says Turnpike officials do not oppose his efforts to solicit private investment funding. He says that Turnpike Commission chairman Mitchell Rubin and vice-chair Timothy Carson both expressed support at a transport roundtable meeting at the Dusquesne Club in Pittsburgh June 7. Carson said he thought a PPP was feasible for both MFE/51-376 and the Southern Beltway I-79 to US22.

Rubin said to abandon MFE/51-376 would be "criminal"!

Interesting move to have an advocacy group seek expressions of interest

Kirk's group obviously has no power itself to negotiate or sign a toll concession. Kirk's hope is to explore the prospects for a concession, try to cobble together the elements of a viable proposal, and hand off to the state. He sees his role as a champion and a go-between.

 It is interesting that major private toll groups are responding to a non-state actor.

Storied history

The Mon Fayettte Expressway an eventual 113km (70 miles) has 74km (46 miles) either open or under construction and will provide high quality mobility to the storied Monongahela (hence 'Mon') River valley which in the period 1865 to 1965 was along with the Ruhr in Germany and the Urals in Russia the world's greatest concentration of steel mills.

The rail for America's railroads, the I-beam for the skyscrapers of Chicago and New York, and the steel plate for tanks, battleships and aircraft carriers, the girders and cables for America's great bridges was largely forged in steel mills of the Mon Valley - in a string of riverfront towns called Homestead, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, Monessen, Swissvale and Carrie. Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and other great capitalists of Pittsburgh pioneered major innovations in steelmaking and formed great steel companies. The plentiful coal of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio were combined with iron ore mined around the Great Lakes and barged into the Mon Valley to feed open hearths and blast furnaces.

Barges and railways moved the raw materials and the finished product. Workers lived in self-contained mill towns around each mill and walked or rode bicycles to work, so no serious highway developed.

The area collapsed economically in the 1960s and 1970s when these large integrated mills were made obsolete by specialized mini-mills and by the rigidity and high cost of unionized labor forces. The mills closed in rapid succession and the valley missed out on a tax funded interstate highway. Economic revival of the valley, it is argued, depends on tying the towns together and linking them to interstates to the north and south with an expressway, the MFE.

Download Penn Pike brochure on Mon Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway project.

TOLLROADSnews 2007-07-03


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