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November 3, 2012

Window for removing trees along U.S. Route 219 putting squeeze on officials

Money for lanes is in place, but environmental issues hold up progress

MEYERSDALE, Pa. — A couple-months-long window for removing trees along the U.S. Route 219 corridor south of Somerset is putting the squeeze on officials as they strive to meet a spring start on the four-lane limited-access highway.

PennDOT District 9 executive Tom Prestash told members of the North/South Appalachian Highway Coalition and elected officials from Pennsylvania and Maryland on Thursday that while the $300 million needed to turn the two-lane into a limited-access four-lane is in place, the state still awaits federal permits involving environmental issues.

The good news is that an extensive survey failed to turn up any Indiana bats, a federal endangered species that could have brought immeasurable delay and increases hopes of permit approval by year’s end, he said.

“We’re committed to getting that thing under construction next year,” Prestash said.

But one looming potential problem is again the Indiana bat, which could push the start of construction into the latter part of next year.

The permits have to be in PennDOT’s hands before the project can be put out to bid. A part of the bids will be the cutting down of what amounts to 200-plus acres of trees along the right of way.

Because of the potential that the habitat of Indiana bats could be harmed, a strict time limit to do that timbering is in place, Prestash said.

“We are only allowed to cut any trees from November to March. We need to get this tree cutting down,” he said. “We’re pushing aggressively to get those permits in place.”

The timbering will take about 30 days and require only that the trees are cut down and on the ground with cleanup after the March deadline. But further delays in the permitting process will force the timbering into November 2013.

The highway project, which will provide a four-lane Route 219 from north of Ebensburg to Meyersdale, has been on the wish list of many for decades and will soon become a reality with federal legislation that eliminates the need for any state match.

Route 219 from Ebensburg south is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, one of six such corridors in the state as designated by Congress a half-century ago in an effort to bring the states along the Appalachian Mountains out of poverty.

The massive, five-year road project, described by Prestash as currently the largest in the state, will be financed 100 percent using ADHS money and is expected to attract competitive bidding from across Pennsylvania.

Map-21, the two-year federal highway legislation signed into law in July, removes the requirement that ADHS money be matched 20 percent by the state and eliminates the need to use toll credits, ending a seven-year battle between state and federal legislators, said Dave Moe.

Moe, coordinator of the North/South coalition, said estimates are that this phase of the highway, along with six miles from Meyersdale south and about three miles in Maryland to Interstate 68, will create 20,000 construction jobs and result in an economic impact for southern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland of 10,000 permanent jobs.

Under the plans outlined by Prestash Thursday, 10 million cubic yards of earth will be moved for the Somerset to Meyersdale work, taking about two years.

Two years will be needed for construction and another year for paving.

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