A sign on display in November 2019 at Morguen Toole Co. in Meyersdale advocates for the completion of U.S. Route 219 as a four-lane, limited-access highway between Somerset and Interstate 68 in Maryland.

SOMERSET, Pa. — The Somerset County Commissioners have decided to double their lobbying efforts in a bid to gain lawmakers' support that is needed to complete the last section of Route 219.

And in this case, they're turning to a firm that includes a onetime southwestern Pennsylvania congressman to make it happen.

Just four months after hiring Pendulum Strategies, the commissioners voted Tuesday to split the duties between the D.C.-based agency and a South Carolina firm, Nelson Mullins.

Nelson Mullins' roster includes Ron Klink, who served southwestern Pennsylvania when it was part of the 4th district in the 1990s.

Klink worked as a WTAJ-TV reporter and, later, KDKA news anchor before entering politics. He has ties to both D.C. and Somerset County – including family members who still call Somerset home, Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.

Today, he serves as a senior policy advisor for Nelson Mullins.

Klink's bio shows that he works at the company's Washington, D.C., office, which sits less than two blocks from the United States Capitol building.

"Ron's a native of Summit Township and just like (fellow Somerset Countian Michael Frazier with Pendulum) both understand the importance of this project to Somerset County," she said.

Based in South Carolina, Nelson Mullins is a law firm and lobbying group whose focus areas include communications, government relations and transportation. The company operates nearly two dozen offices throughout the east coast from Massachusetts to south Florida — as well as locations in Colorado and California, its website shows.

Efforts to reach company officials for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The commissioners have turned to lobbying firms several times to help win support for Route 219 over the years.

A multi-group effort that included then-U.S. Rep and Transportation chair Bill Schuster helped run the four-lane highway south to Meyersdale a little over a year ago.

With Maryland working on a connector segment from Interstate 68 to the Pennsylvania border, both states are pushing for the final 5 1/5 miles to become a reality.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Pennsylvania, county officials said momentum was building to see new federal transportation spending in the coming year, which prompted the board to ink a one year-deal with Pendulum.

The board cited Frazier's ties to the area when they approved the first deal in February. He's a Somerset Area High School graduate who worked under two U.S. senators – including Ted Kennedy – before establishing Pendulum in 2005.

Tuesday's move with Pendulum amended that one-year deal from $8,000 a month to $5,000 monthly.

The deal with Nelson Mullins will also run for one year at $5,000 a month, President Commissioner Gerald Walker said.

Both firms have their own network of contacts who could be difference-makers, he added.

"As we move, hopefully, into this next phase with the virus ... (it's important) we get this project back in focus," Tokar-Ickes said.

COVID-19 funds

Somerset's commissioners must submit their proposal for $6 million in COVID-19 relief funds by Wednesday and are hopeful it could benefit a regional effort to extend high-speed broadband through Somerset County and beyond.

Broadband extension efforts are among a short list of approximately 10 permitted uses for the funds, in addition to reimbursement for personal protective gear purchases, assistance to municipalities for COVID-19 planning and response, and tourism grants.

The commissioners said Tuesday they have been working to sort through restrictions and guidelines, which were just provided in detail last week.

They noted some of the money could be used to award business grants to companies with fewer than 100 employees that didn't get support through the initial round of the federal CARES Act.

Certain nonprofits, including 501(c)(3) agencies, could also be granted support.

With an application to use the funds still requiring approval, all of that still remains up in the air, Walker said, but he acknowledged it could be "good timing" for the multi-county broadband study currently underway.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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