Penn Pike Commission requesting expressions of interest in completing Mon Fayette and S Beltway TRs

March 5, 2008
By Peter Samuel
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission at a meeting today approved a staff proposal to advertise for expressions of interest in a toll concession to build three remaining sections of the connected Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway projects south of Pittsburgh. They constitute some 83km (51.6 miles) of expressway with a project cost of about $5.2b, the Turnpike says in a statement issued after the meeting.

The request for expressions of interest (RFEI) will be for the "financing and/or design, engineering, construction, operation of unbuilt segments" of the two connected toll roads.

The project includes:

- Mon Fayette Expressway PA51 to I-376 (Parkway East) yellow on map, 41.5km (25.8 miles) a Y-shaped project serving both east-west and north-south movement immediately southeast of central Pittsburgh, $3,800m (C1 on map nearby)

- Southern Beltway US22 to I-79 purple on map 21.4km (13.3 miles), $660m (C2 on map)

- Southern Beltway I-79 to MFE (PA43) tan on map 20.1km (12.5 miles), $735m (C3 on map)

The Southern Beltway is a fringe area road in relatively easy-to-build country. By contrast the MFE/51-376 is the most difficult phase of a longer expressway that has been in construction in stages over several decades south of Pittsburgh. It is an inner area highway with a major bridge over the Monongahela River and difficult construction along the river bank through long developed areas.

The Monongahela or Mon Valley was the site of the largest concentration of iron and steel manufacturing in the world between about 1880 and about 1960. Raw materials and finished products were transported by river barge and rail, and workers walked or rode bicycles to work. With the demise of the steel industry in the 1960s, the Mon Fayette Expressway was seen as key to economic renewal of the valley. But it is an expensive environment in which to build and population has declined.

Request

The idea for seeking private sector concession proposals first came from Joe Kirk of the Mon Valley Progress Council, a local business group that has been championing developing in the valley and the expressway project for several decades. See http://www.monvalleyprogress.org

Last month state house transport chair Joe Markosek (Dem-Allegheny Co) and a leading  Pittsburgh area politician formally requested that the Turnpike seek private sector proposals, given that the Commission itself has concluded the projects are not financially viable, and it has decided not to proceed with a traditional public authority financing.

In a statement today the Turnpike Commission says: "The Turnpike Commission is fully committed to advancing the Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway to completion, specifically PA Route 51 to Pittsburgh and the remaining sections of the Southern Beltway."

CEO Brimmeier is quoted: "Significant pieces of both systems are now open to traffic, and by the year 2012, we will have approximately 60 continuous miles (100km) of highway from West Virginia (I-68) to Route 51."

The statement today continues:

"Brimmeier said the Turnpike Commission presently has the authority to enter into P3s when in the best interest of the Commission, and so no additional legislation would be needed. The General Assembly tasked the Turnpike Commission with advancing these projects with passage of Act 61
of 1985.

"The 50 miles of tolled expressway not yet under construction include the 24-mile Mon-Fayette Expressway project in Allegheny County north from Pa. Route 51 in Jefferson Hills to Interstate 376 in Pittsburgh and
Monroeville. Now in final design, the alignment traverses Jefferson Hills, West Mifflin, Dravosburg, Duquesne, North Versailles, Turtle Creek, Wilkins, Monroeville, Penn Hills, East Pittsburgh, North Braddock, Braddock, Swissvale, Rankin and the City of Pittsburgh.

"Also unbuilt are two independent but interconnected Southern Beltway projects that would extend the beltway system another 25.8 miles south and east from U.S. Route 22 in Robinson Township, Washington County to
the existing Mon-Fayette Expressway (Turnpike 43) in Union Township, Washington County. The first 6 miles of the proposed 32-mile Southern Beltway, south from the Pa. Route 60 Expressway at Pittsburgh International Airport in Findlay Township, Allegheny County to Route 22, opened in October 2006.

"The middle Southern Beltway project is roughly 13.3 miles and traverses Robinson Township, Cecil Township and Mount Pleasant Township in Washington County and South Fayette Township in Allegheny County. It
would link with Interstate 79 at the Allegheny-Washington County line between the existing Bridgeville and Southpointe interchanges on I-79.

"The easternmost Southern Beltway project, entirely in Washington County, is approximately 12.5 miles and traverses Cecil Township, a corner of Peters Township, North Strabane Township, Nottingham Township and Union Township.

"Cost estimates are approximately $3.8 billion for the northernmost leg of the Mon-Fayette system, $659 million for the Southern Beltway project from Route 22 to Interstate 79 and $735 million for the Southern Beltway
project from I-79 to Turnpike 43.

"All segments of the Mon-Fayette Expressway system south of Jefferson Hills approximately 56 miles (90km) will be completed by late 2011 or early 2012 when the Turnpike Commission opens Phase 2 of the Mon-Fayette
Uniontown-to-Brownsville area project - dirty green on map) between Redstone Township, Fayette County and Centerville Borough, Washington County. Phase 1 advanced to construction in February 2006 and will open in fall 2008.

http://www.paturnpike.com/MonFaySB/

CONTEXT: Turnpike CEO Brimmeier has also said the Turnpike will soon be issuing RFEIs on reversible elevated express lanes to be built above two inner radial expressways: Parkway Easy (I-376) in Pittsburgh and the Schuykill Expressway (I-76) in Philadelphia. These projects are inspired by the success of the Reversible Express Lanes elevated in Tampa Florida, but they are not accepted (or rejected) locally and study and permitting would be needed. By contrast the Southern Beltway and Mon Fayette projects are well developed projects with most or all planning clearances and strong local support.

The Parkway East Elevated proposed by Brimmeier is competitive with the east-west portion of MFE/51-376 (the arms of the yellow Y).

COMMENT: It is somewhat bizarre that the same Turnpike Commission that is campaigning so vigorously against consideration of a toll concession on its mainline is itself sponsoring concessions. In arguing against a concession on the mainline Turnpike Commission spokesmen argue that concessionaires are unable to operate more efficiently and face higher costs of capital than the Commission itself. Yet here are projects the Commission says it cannot bring to fruition with all its much vaunted efficiency, local knowledge and low capital costs.

Commission spokesmen attempt to explain this contradiction by saying they support "greenfields concessions" on new projects while opposing "brownfields concessions - the takeover of the existing mainline.

The distinction dwindles as time passes. Over a concession period of say 75 years the mainline would require rebuilding and expansion at least equivalent to a greenfields project. Technologies change completely over periods of that length. And beyond say 20 years out traffic and revenue uncertainties are not much different either.

TOLLROADSnews 2008-03-4

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