A sign on display Thursday 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. — Somerset County Commissioners have hired a Washington, D.C., consultant with local ties to lobby the U.S. Route 219 project.

With the prospect for new federal highway dollars appearing more likely and coalitions in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia all backing the 5-mile project, “a lot of planets are aligning now ... and we need to be more aggressive in pursuit of funds,” Commissioner Pamela Tokar Ickes said.

In recent days, both Democrats and the Trump administration have been pushing separate funding bills that would boost funding for “surface” transportation projects – highways included.

Somerset’s commissioners – Tokar-Ickes, President Commissioner Gerald Walker and Colleen Dawson said the county has to ensure lawmakers on Capitol Hill see Route 219 as a priority.

That’ll be Somerset Area graduate Michael Frazier’s job this spring.

County commissioners unanimously voted to approve an $8,000 per month contract with his firm, Pendulum Strategies, to lobby lawmakers to support the highway project.

Frazier established Pendulum Strategies in 2005 after spending years working as a Loeffler Group lobbyist. Before that, he spent two decades in government, first as a legislative assistant under Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy and then as chief of staff for former Illinois senator Carol Mosley-Braun before being appointed as assistant secretary for government affairs with the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to the Center for Responsible Politics.

Over the years, Pendulum has worked on behalf of companies such as Texas Instruments and Corning to obtain federal support, the Center’s Opensecrets.org website shows.

Tokar-Ickes and Walker noted the county has paid firms to lobby on their behalf before for state and federal support, on projects such as the Quemahoning Pipeline.

The region’s leaders have been pushing for Route 219 progress for decades, getting more than 11 miles of new four-lane added to Meyersdale a year ago. Maryland officials are currently working to extend the highway from Interstate 68 to the Pennsylvania state line. That less than 2-mile section is expected to be completed by mid-2021.

Somerset County’s commissioners said they plan to continue to work with local lawmakers and Route 219 project advocates to win support in Harrisburg, too, Tokar-Ickes said.

"We’ve got to hit this from all angles. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” she added.

Dawson agreed.

“We’ve got to strike while it’s hot,” she said.

‘Tunnel’ vision

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s latest step toward revamping the toll road’s Allegheny Tunnel is being met with unanimous opposition – and a one-page-letter by the board, urging the state to reconsider it.

The Turnpike Commission is currently in the “study phase” of a plan to address substandard curves approaching the Allegheny Township entrance, as well as frequent traffic congestion and accidents.

And the current proposal – called “The Gray Cut Alternative” – would add a new 3.7-mile path that would mean excavating 13.5 million cubic yards from the mountain.

“In our opinion, the proposed cut will have a devastating impact on the environment of both Somerset and Bedford counties. Groundwater loss will impact the wetland and water sources of the region. Stormwater runoff, and the addition of roadway materials, will impact streams, rivers and public water sources,” the board wrote in a letter addressed to the commission’s Ebensburg consultant, L.R. Kimball.

“This is a natural resource. It’s not something we want to give up,” Tokar-Ickes said, noting any bypass could also create safety concerns, potentially sending traffic north into the an often foggy area.

Area residents have until Feb. 27 to weigh in on the proposal.

To learn more about the Turnpike Commission’s plan or make a comment, visit www.patpconstruction.com/allegtunn/default.aspx

Trail support

Additional costs to mitigate wetland issues along a corridor eyed for a nearly 1.5-mile extension of the September 11 National Memorial Trail won’t aren’t expected to stop the project from proceeding as planned, Walker said.

A boost in state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources funding will add a total of $270,000 in funds toward the “trail connector” project.

County Commissioners approved an agreement with the agency Tuesday to receive the funds.

As planned the new stretch of trail would spur from the Great Allegheny Passage in Garrett and travel through the borough before ending at the Buffalo Creek Bridge, according to trail coordinator Lindsay Pyle.

As planned, it would be the first of several phases of trail work that would follow a former CSX rail bed toward the Flight 93 National Memorial.

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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