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The Southern Beltway is alive

January 15, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
I am a highway nerd.

I enjoy stories about planning and engineering and construction of highways, resurfacing and rebuilding them, dreaming of new ones. I like reading them and writing them.

It’s probably because the first half of my life was spent watching this area argue over the U.S. Route 22 expressway around Steubenville and Weirton, as well as watching the final links of state Route 7 as a four-lane expressway be built through Jefferson County.

As a reporter (more than the second half of my life), I’ve written a lot of stories about Route 22, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, and a lot of lane miles of local construction and resurfacing projects. Looking back it’s kind of cool to realize I was there when each phase of Route 22 opened around Steubenville and Weirton, and when the Veterans Memorial Bridge opened 22 years ago.

One of the last great highway projects I wrote about was the Southern Beltway. The highway is sort of in existence now in its first phase as the Findlay Connector, what we call 576, the toll road connecting U.S. Route 22 to the Pittsburgh International Airport.

The beltway is supposed to run about 32 miles from the airport to the Mon-Fayette Expressway southeast of Pittsburgh, creating a beltway and an alternative to the Parkway system.

It opened in October 2006 (I was there), and it’s been barely used since then. It’s been a boon to anyone coming from Steubenville-Weirton to or from the airport, and I think it played a role in helping the industrial parks at Burgettstown and Three Springs Drive in Weirton boom.

After the collapse of the economy in 2008, as well as the return of rampant deficit spending, I figured there was a spike through the heart of the extension of Turnpike 576 through its next phase, which would connect the expressway from where it forces us to go back onto Route 22 when coming from the airport to I-79, providing a good alternate way into the city of Pittsburgh for those wanting to avoid at least some of the Parkway West.

So it was a good surprise when I heard the afternoon news on KDKA Radio Tuesday pronouncing the next phase of the Southern Beltway a “go.” Sent me right to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s website. Contracts have been awarded for completion of the bridge over Route 22 to carry the mainline onward, and for the general contractor to oversee all the subcontracts to come for completion of the roughly 12 miles of road between Route 22 and I-79.

That is exciting stuff. I’m not sure about the immediate impact on its completion, but I think our area’s time to enjoy being one of the lone beneficiaries of this end of the Southern Beltway is coming to a close. The advantage will still be there, in easy access to the airport and also now to other parts of the Pittsburgh region, but the new highway segment also could potentially open up thousands of acres of more developable land south of Route 22.

Of course, that’s in high-tax Pennsylvania.

The phase that is beginning to be built is about a half billion dollars worth of work. And it will take several years to complete, but could be open to traffic by 2020. The last phase, which would take the highway from I-79 to the Mon-Fayette Expressway segments that have been built southeast of Pittsburgh, isn’t much more than a gleam in the traffic nerd’s eye for now. There’s been no alignment study, let alone design or engineering, and the terrain is less favorable than what’s being dealt with in the current project. The turnpike commission estimates $700 million in today’s dollars could do it for the third section.

But then, I figured phase II of the Pittsburgh belt wasn’t going to happen in my driving lifetime.

And the turnpike commission estimates the use of the Findlay Connector will double to about 6,500 vehicles per day (though given how empty the road looks with 3,250 vehicles a day now, we might not notice too much of a buildup).

Here’s to revving up our engines in a couple years and avoiding some of the traffic headaches of the Parkway West on our way to the city. But surely I-79 will just become a new choke point as traffic diverts onto it.

Which could drive the need for the rest of the Southern Beltway home. Which gives traffic nerds like me more to read and write about.

 
 

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