On the Road ... With Bob, Bill and Mike | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

On the Road ... With Bob, Bill and Mike

We dragged the mayoral wannabes off the campaign trail and on to the yet-to-be-built expressway to the future

Neighbor Hoods
District 2 of a Kind
City Council District 8


Quiet Seatwork

Diven and Conquer

John Perris wants to lose his business of 32 years. He hopes the Turnpike Commission buys the Lytle Café from him, knocks it down and paves it over. Why? "It gets me out of here," Perris says.

"The neighborhood is a shambles now," says Perris of the sliver of Hazelwood in which his bar and home sit, between the CSX tracks and the Monongahela River. The nearby LTV Steel coke works has been closed seven years, and nothing has replaced it. So if the Turnpike Commission wants to build a road that would level the Lytle, as the Mon-Fayette Expressway apparently would, then so be it. Perris adds that if somebody built houses on the former mill site, he'd tough it out. "If they'd do something, I'd stay."

That sentiment seems common in Hazelwood and throughout Pittsburgh this mayoral election year. If they'd just do something ...

Follow the campaigns of Bob O'Connor, Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb, and the somethings you're most likely to hear about are plans to cut costs, cooperate with the county, streamline economic development, blah blah. There's been less talk about the planned Mon-Fayette Expressway, which would be the biggest something to hit Pittsburgh's landscape since the opening of Interstate 279 North in 1989.

Why the relative quiet? Well, mayors can't veto highways. They can, however, use the bully pulpit and their appointments to the region's transportation committee to advance, alter or stall road projects. That's especially true for projects which, like the expressway, aren't fully funded. In the meantime, the expressway issue provides a tunnel into the three major candidates' philosophies, strategies -- and political IOUs.

To frontrunner Bob O'Connor, the daily Squirrel Hill Tunnel crawl is reason enough to build the Mon-Fayette Expressway. "One of the major problems in the East End is traffic. How are we going to improve the quality of life when it's bumper-to-bumper?" the former city council president asks. "I look at [the expressway] as a Squirrel Hill bypass."

The expressway would give commuters a new way from the city to the Mon Valley and Monroeville, but it'd be much more than a bypass. It already runs 46 miles, from the West Virginia border to Route 51 at Large. The Turnpike Commission wants to add a Y-shaped segment that would run from Large to North Versailles, then split, with one arm going northeast to Monroeville, the other northwest to Pittsburgh. The segment's total length would be 24 miles, and the 5.8-mile city portion would cross Swisshelm Park, southern Squirrel Hill, Glen Hazel, Hazelwood and South Oakland, ending at Bates Street. It would displace 162 city households and 21 city businesses, mostly in Hazelwood.

The Federal Highway Administration approved the plan in December. The Turnpike Commission plans to spend the next five years finalizing the design and buying property along the route, says Tom Fox, the commission's manager of public involvement for the Mon-Fayette Expressway and related Southern Beltway Project. The commission hasn't yet raised the $1.6 billion it needs to build the link, Fox adds.

"I believe it has to be done correctly," O'Connor says. "George Washington [Memorial] Parkway, in D.C. -- that's what I see," he says, referring to the woodsy, landscaped approach to the nation's capital.

To Bill Peduto, a first-term city councilor, there's no way to beautify sprawl -- the drift of population toward undeveloped areas. "What it leads to is development of greenfields in rural areas of Fayette County," he says. That makes little sense for a region that's losing population and a city that's struggling to keep its tax base, he says. "You keep building out, you keep creating more infrastructure, you keep paying more in taxes."

Michael Lamb, the Allegheny County prothonotary, faults both positions. "Just to buy wholesale into this project is a mistake," he says. "Just to say we're not going to do it is really walking away from reality."

Lamb says the expressway has supporters in the region because it would improve access to the Mon Valley, and connect the partly constructed Southern Beltway -- mostly in Washington County -- to the Turnpike's mainline. Neither of those aims requires a connection to Pittsburgh, he says. So he'd push to eliminate the arm to Pittsburgh, while supporting the link to Monroeville.

Such a road wouldn't alleviate Squirrel Hill Tunnel backups or improve the flow of traffic to Pittsburgh, says the Turnpike Commission's Fox. The commission will "do everything in our power to address the [next] mayor's concerns," he adds. But what if the next mayor doesn't want the road to enter the city limits at all? "[I]n the end, the mayor's or anyone else's only recourse would be [through] the courts."

Neither Peduto nor Lamb wants a court fight. Both say that as mayor, they'd rally the expressway's foes. They'd leverage the mayor's power to appoint five of the 61 voting members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which sets transportation priorities for the 10-county region. And both argue that the fact that the Turnpike Commission is $1.6 billion short of what it needs to build the expressway gives them an opportunity to change its course.

The Turnpike Commission has supported a proposal introduced in the General Assembly that would raise gas taxes by 5 to 8 cents a gallon, and dedicate one quarter of the revenue to the expressway and beltway, for several decades. Peduto says supporting the expressway means supporting that gas-tax hike. "By Bob supporting increasing gas taxes," says Peduto, "he is impacting other projects that could be done in southwestern Pennsylvania" with those funds.

In fact, at various times during the campaign, O'Connor himself has proposed new trolley lines, commuter rail service, magnetic levitation systems and bike paths. "I'm not supporting everything," he says. "I'm saying, 'Here are some ideas. What should we do?'" He bristles at the suggestion that he'd support a gas-tax hike to fund the expressway. "Who's saying that? People who don't want a highway at all," he says. "The federal government is going to have to fund the Mon-Fayette Expressway."

A federal infusion isn't likely, according to a 2004 report by Ohio-based municipal consultants Brunot Consulting, written for the anti-expressway group PennFuture. Budget deficits, the expensive Iraq War and the region's declining population make it unlikely that Washington will write a big check. A proposal to dedicate 12 percent of the state's usual federal transportation money to the expressway, for 20 years, failed politically because it would cut too deeply into other projects, the report notes.

Lamb and Peduto both say they'd rather fund improvements to state routes 51, 837 and 885, expand light rail and run commuter trains along existing tracks between Downtown, Oakland and Hazelwood. Peduto criticizes Lamb, though, for being "halfway on one side and halfway on the other" regarding the expressway. "His campaign is trying to have it every way."

"To say, 'We're not going to do anything,' is just not realistic," Lamb counters. The Southern Beltway is well underway, he notes, and political movers are going to make sure it connects to the Turnpike mainline. "They're going to build that highway."

Supporting a highway has its advantages. So does opposing one.

Among O'Connor's top 25 campaign contributors in 2004 were several who'd likely love to see the expressway reach Bates Street. His top contributors, Ira and Stanley Gumberg, weighing in at $25,000 each, are developing property in Panther Hollow, near Bates. Contractors who've worked on other sections of the expressway system may be hoping for another payday. Matthew McTish of Montoursville-based McTish Kunkle & Associates gave O'Connor $5,100, a fraction of the $12 million the firm is getting to manage part of the Southern Beltway project. And $5,000 contributor Louis Ruscitto's firm, A & L Inc. of Belle Vernon, built the $7.6 million toll facility in Large. Ruscitto was also a $3,500 contributor to O'Connor's 2001 mayoral run.

On May 6, the candidates are required to report their fund-raising for the first four months of this year, which should be the bulk of their campaign cash.

"Unfortunately, a lot of transit riders don't have the wherewithal to write $10,000 checks, like highway contractors do," says Peduto. But he often mentions his anti-expressway stance when speaking before environmental groups, and the local Sierra Club cited it when endorsing Peduto on April 27. An informal group called Enviros for Peduto has held fund-raisers for him.

Lamb seems unbothered by the fact that his middle-of-the-road position could honk off both sides. "My position, and I think it's my position on any [issue] we've talked about, is realistic alternatives," he says. "We want to move this region forward in a way that there is buy-in from the community, in a way that truly reaches out beyond the city, and in a way that keeps the regional approach intact, but recognizes the viability of the City of Pittsburgh."

Back in Hazelwood, that viability seems to be hanging by a thread. Even expressway supporters seem less than glowingly optimistic. "I think it'll do Hazelwood some good," says the Lytle Café's Perris. "They say it'll ruin business [on Second Avenue]. There aren't many businesses up there."

Perris digs into his mashed potatoes, and the neighborhood guys start talking about the road. One hopes to work on the project. Another fears it'll turn this sliver of Hazelwood into even more of a lost world. But everybody agrees that it would be something.

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