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Road Signs of Life 

In the Pittsburgh region, some dreams never die.

Just last summer, opponents of the Mon-Fayette Expressway gathered to celebrate its imminent death from lack of funding and political support.

But nearly 40 years in the making, the pipe dream of staking a four-lane interstate highway into the heart of some of the most moribund towns in the Mon Valley has recently been resuscitated -- with interest from private firms courted by the roadway's most ardent supporters.

The roadway in question is the yet-to-be-built 24-mile stretch of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, an interstate highway that would connect Pittsburgh to Morgantown, W.Va. Currently, the expressway runs from Interstate 40 to Jefferson Hills, where it meets the superhighway of yesteryear, Route 51. As planned, the expressway would continue north and fork near North Versailles, sending one spur through Turtle Creek to Monroeville, and the other up to Oakland, while cutting through Braddock, Rankin, Duck Hollow, Nine Mile Run and Hazelwood.

According to the most recent estimate, by PennDOT in May, the construction costs of bridging the MFX between Route 51 and I-376 in Monroeville have ballooned to $3.6 billion from $2 billion a year or so ago. Still, not a dime has been allocated for the stretch's construction. Given the paucity of state and federal transportation funding for new highways, this would most certainly put the project out of reach.

Though not for some die-hard dreamers. In their latest incarnation, long-time MFX supporters banded together last spring to form a new coalition called the Expressway Partnership Initiative.

The coalition is made up of the government officials and business people who still believe that the highway is just what is needed to revive the regional economy. The coalition is headed by the project's perennial stalwarts: West-to-West Coalition, whose board is filled by elected borough officials from across the region, and Mon Valley Progress Council, a grassroots community development group. Other member organizations include the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce, Regional Chamber Alliance and the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County. Representatives of the coalition plan to come out in force to testify before the State Transportation Commission at its regional hearing in Southpointe on Aug. 29.

The members are unconcerned that the government has no money for the project; the coalition's first act was to look to the private sector. In May, the coalition sought letters of interest from private firms who might participate in investing and building of the MFX. "Presenting creative ideas is the way to keep the project alive," says Mon Valley Progress Council Executive Director Joe Kirk. "Our goal is to invite a lot of private sources of funding to keep this project going ahead."

The coalition heard from four firms. Not surprisingly, three of them -- The Carlyle Group, of Washington, D.C., Macquarie Securities (USA) Inc. and Cintra Developments L.L.C. -- were among the 50 that had expressed interest in Gov. Edward G. Rendell's defeated plans to raise money for highway spending by leasing the turnpike. (Macquarie and Cintra now jointly manage the Indiana Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway. And Macquarie led a consortium to acquire Duquesne Light last summer.)

Rendell's plans were defeated because, unlike in Indiana and Illinois, neither the legislature nor the state Turnpike Commission was willing to cede control of their roadways. Last week, Turnpike Commission CEO Joe Brimmeier affirmed that to CP: "We don't believe in turning over the entire highway to the private sector."

However, Brimmeier says the commission might be willing to partner with private firms. However, none of the four firms who responded have been involved in building toll roads, although one -- OHL Infrastructure of Spain -- did put in a bid last October to build and manage the planned new toll road for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. And if that bid is any indication of how OHL would propose to build out the MFX, money seems likely to be going the other way -- from state coffers to the builder's pockets.

In its bid to build the 3.1-mile stretch of the four-lane highway, OHL sought an annual public subsidy ranging from $20 to $24 million over four decades. The total subsidy, totaling between $800 million and nearly $1 billion, will cover the design, construction, management and maintenance of the new road.

In their letters to the MFX coalition, the firms stopped short of making a proposal. They signaled interest in getting involved and cited their experience in operating toll roads elsewhere in the U.S. and in foreign countries. Kirk's coalition, Brimmeier says, has "no power to engage any firm or to spend any money." Kirk, too, conceded that his coalition lacks real authority, but he maintains that it acted because the MFX is a "community project." "The history of this project is interwoven with community efforts," he says.

Apparently, further efforts have been afoot to generate more community support. In early August, days after the coalition completed its solicitation drive, West-to-West blanketed Mon Valley borough officials with mailings that include a form letter and a boilerplate resolution that urges state legislators not to transfer money already earmarked for the Pittsburgh leg into other sections of the MFX.

Brimmeier maintained that there is no fund transfer and accused the coalition of "playing politics." The dedicated fund -- $300 million -- is still there to complete the design of the Pittsburgh leg.

But MFX opponents, such as Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, say, "They're trying to prop themselves up that there is a universal thirst for this road."

At its Aug. 14 meeting, Braddock Borough Council passed the resolution sent by West-to-West with nary any discussion and almost as an afterthought, says Fetterman, who attended the meeting. "That's what makes their effort so bankrupt," he adds.

"What we were saying is to let the powers that be know that we still very much strongly support [the highway]," counters George Matta Sr., a Duquesne councilman who sits on West-to-West's board. "We might be whistling to the dogs. But if we do nothing and say nothing, we'll only have ourselves to blame."

Matta says when his borough council considers the resolution at next month's meeting, residents will get the chance to speak before council takes action.

Besides Braddock, so far White Oak, West Mifflin, Munhall and North Versailles have passed the resolution.

Meanwhile, waiting for the MFX dream to come true has held the Mon Valley in development limbo as well as subjecting the region to further disinvestment.

For three years, the Duquesne Emergency Medical Services operated out of a building that was determined to be uninhabitable because of mold and leaky plumbing. But since the building is among the properties to be leveled for the highway project, the borough delayed bringing it up to code. Finally, the EMS operation was forced to move into a FEMA trailer three months ago.

Andrea Boykowycz, outreach coordinator for PennFuture, a statewide environmental group that advocates against the MFX, says that the affected communities should take a hard look at what transportation infrastructure they actually need and can sustain.

"In victimized communities everywhere there is a history of accepting what other people have decided for them," says Boykowycz. "What really needs to happen is to take the initiative to decide what they want."

Still she predicts: "It's going to take a while for people to get the Mon-Fayette Expressway out of their head."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY WAYNO

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