The federal Environmental Protection Agency will not ask for an additional review of the Route 219 project from the Meyersdale Bypass north to where the four-lane currently ends in Somerset.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, made that announcement Monday. The decision clears the way for the Army Corps of Engineers to issue the final permit needed for construction to begin. The Corps is expected to issue the permit as early as Wednesday, Shuster said.
“I’m pleased that the EPA has given the Route 219 project the appropriate examination and decided that it will not be subject to a higher level of review than other projects across the country,” Casey said in a telephone interview. “While there is still more to do to get Route 219 where it needs to be, this is a critical step that will help this job-creating project move forward.”
“The expansion of Route 219 is one step away from finally being a reality,” Shuster said in a conference call with reporters. “Once the EPA gives their approval the Army Corps of Engineers can issue the permit to begin work on the project. PennDOT can begin taking bids and this critical north-south route will get the necessary expansion it needs for greater economic development.”
If the agency had wanted a further review, it would have delayed the project.
“Folks have been waiting for a long time for this,” Shuster said.
The Route 219 project was first proposed 56 years ago. In an interview in 1996, Dr. William R. Korns, state representative from 1956 to 1964, remembered the state transportation secretary coming to Somerset on July 9, 1957. The secretary agreed to research the first proposed route. Korns remembered the exact date because it was his birthday. He has since died.
In May 1965 the entire proposed Route 219 corridor from Bluefield, W.Va., to Buffalo, N.Y., was designated as a corridor of the Appalachian Development Highway System. The 25-mile section of Route 219 from Cambria County south to Somerset was started in 1967. Land was purchased for the Meyersdale Bypass in the 1970s. A group of people began pushing for Route 219 to go further east, closer to Berlin. That halted the project.
Construction of the Meyersdale Bypass started in 1997. The Meyersdale to Somerset section was delayed again in 2005 when the federal transportation bill excluded the use of toll credits as the state’s 20 percent share of funding. The new highway bill, which President Barack Obama signed on July 6, includes the use of toll credits. That means the $300 million project is 100 percent federally funded.
Tree cutting began on Feb. 14 because trees had to be removed during months that bats hibernate in caves. Now, with the permit coming from the Army Corps of Engineers, PennDOT may advertise for bids. PennDOT District 9 Executive Tom Prestash said the agency will review the permit once it is received and will advertise for bids in late May.
Because the project is so large — 11 miles of highway with two interchanges and 12 bridges — prospective contractors will be given eight weeks to prepare their bids. The bids will be opened in late July. It will take PennDOT an additional six to eight weeks to review the bids and award the work, with construction to begin in late September. Earthwork is to be done this year. The bridges and other structures are to be built in 2014 and the paving will be done in 2015. While the entire project is anticipated to take five years, it could be faster depending on the contractor.
“My goal is to connect Route 219 with Interstate 68 in Maryland,” Shuster said. “I will fight very hard to make it a reality. It will be a huge economic impact for southern Somerset County.”
The governor has agreed to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley’s offer for Maryland to pay for the necessary study to complete that section of Route 219, the congressman said. Funding for that portion of the project is still in limbo.
Shuster has frequently said that when he looks in a mirror Route 219 appears in writing on his forehead. When asked he said on Monday that the writing has only faded a little because the job isn’t done.
“We were in negotiations and I would not let go of it,” he said. “The next highway bill comes up in September of 2014, and I am now the transportation committee chairman. I will continue to fight for Route 219.”
Casey said the last time he saw Shuster, he said “Hello — 219” and Shuster laughed.
“Often when you are dealing with federal governmental agencies, you have to maintain a level of hope, which is not always rising to a level of confidence,” Casey said. “This is an important development and it was a bipartisan effort that brought it about.”