The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
PHOTOS BY RYAN DONNELL
From left: Joseph P. Kirk, Frank J. Kempf Jr. and David E. Zazworsky
The US$7 billion Mon/Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway turnpike project in southwestern Pennsylvania, USA is a testament to the commitment of dedicated project leaders.
It's also a cautionary tale for infrastructure project teams unsure of whether they will have the budget to finish what they start.
The turnpike project was proposed in the mid-1950s, and a team first broke ground in 1973. But the initiative didn't gain momentum until 1992, with a plan to construct 100 miles (161 kilometers) of toll roads across the region to connect hard-to-reach communities with the city of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh International Airport and adjacent highways in the state of west virginia.
Nineteen years later, only 60 miles (97 kilometers) have been built, and project owners continue to seek funding for the remaining 40 miles (64 kilometers).
“We knew this day was coming,” says Joe Kirk, director of The Mon Valley Progress Council, a not-for-profit organization in Monessen, Pennsylvania, USA, which oversees the initiative. “We've built as much as we can, but as of now there are no more funds.”
TOO BIG FOR STIMULUS FUNDING
Because the Turnpike commission is not part of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), a state government entity, it has had to rely on alternative funding for most of its resources—primarily through state transportation legislation and federal grants. State funding has been used to leverage the sale of bonds, including a US$28 million annual revenue stream derived from vehicle registration fees and a percentage of an increase in the oil company franchise tax.
“Long-term revenue streams from bonding make the most sense for a project of this scale,” Mr. Kirk says.
The commission did receive some money from federal highway discretionary funding—although in the end, those funds only covered a mere 3 percent of the project's total cost. The team also thought it would get a boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, but those funding streams went to smaller, shovel-ready projects, Mr. Kirk explains.
US$4 billion to US$5 billion
The amount of money needed to complete the final 40 miles (64 kilometers) of road. Until then, the project is on hold.
“If more of the stimulus package had gone to infrastructure, we would have had a better shot at getting some money for this project,” he says. “But our project is so big we knew we were never going to get one shot of cash to develop the whole thing.”
THE ROADS NOT TAKEN
While the Turnpike Commission bonds generated approximately US$1.2 billion of the US$2.3 billion expenditures, the team knew from the outset that it might not be enough to budget the entire project. So rather than build half of a road to nowhere, the commission divided the initiative into seven smaller projects, each of which could stand alone as its own road, explains the commission's Frank Kempf, chief engineer on the project. “We were careful in our design to make sure every section had independent utility and logical termini,” he says.
Breaking the project into seven standalone sub-projects also helped to expedite construction, says Dave Zazworsky, special consultant to the Turnpike Commission for the projects.
“Once we received dedicated funding, authorized by the state legislature, we were under the gun to get things moving,” he says.
In 1991, the commission agreed to fast-track two of the sub-projects.
The biggest challenge was securing environmental approval for every stretch of road. The team's segmented approach allowed the commission to move forward with construction on those sections that received environmental approval first.
“If we had approached the Mon/Fayette Expressway as a single project, we wouldn't have been able to start designing until 2004, when the final environmental approval was received,” Mr. Zazworsky says.
Instead, the commission was able to break ground on the first two sub-projects before November 1994, less than two and a half years after the project team commenced fast-tracking. Those first two sub-projects included a US$157 million 8-mile (12.9-kilometer) stretch linking Route 43 to the West virginia border and a US$643 million 17-mile (27-kilometer) section connecting Interstate 70 to Route 51.
“Elected officials and the public were shocked that we broke ground that quickly,” Mr. Zazworsky says. “Because of the tight schedule, most people thought it couldn't be done.”
Mr. Zazworsky credits the group's weekly project team meetings, as well as monthly meetings held with representatives from eight state and federal environmental agencies, with keeping the projects moving aggressively forward.
The 40-person project team included engineers, designers, consultants, legislators, PennDOT representatives and environmental specialists.
“We approached the project one step at a time,” Mr. Zazworsky says. “We figured out where we needed to go and what we needed to do. Then we broke that down into assignments for appropriate members of the project team to complete in the established timeframe.”
The team met every Monday to assess project progress, identify concerns and determine assignments for the coming week. These included completing preliminary engineering and environmental studies, traffic analyses, cost estimates, right-of-way issues and tracking funding.
“Everyone had specific responsibilities and everyone was held accountable,” Mr. Zazworsky says. “It quickly became a self-enforcing process that was effective in keeping the projects on schedule.”
The team completed the first sub-project in March 2000 and the second in April 2002.
BENEFICIAL BACKSEAT DRIVERS
Constant communication with stakeholder groups, including the citizens who would ultimately benefit from the expressways, also helped push progress forward and prioritize the remaining five stand-alone projects, according to Mr. Kirk.
“Community support for projects of this scale is so important,” he says. “It's what has driven this project for so many years.”
The design team worked closely with community groups throughout every phase of each project to update them on its status and to tweak designs to meet local residents’ functional and aesthetics needs.
“These roads will carry tens of thousands of cars for the next 100 years,” Mr. Kempf says. “You have to make sure they are integrated into what that community wants.”
Mr. Kempf admits that in the beginning, he was skeptical of what community members might want. But in the end, he says, their input shaped many of the final designs. Based on the public's feedback, his team raised viaducts, extended bridges, altered interchange designs, and added parks and green space to adjacent land.
“At first I thought they'd want everything gold-plated, but their ideas were terrific,” he says.
Meetings with external stakeholders also helped the commission understand which communities were most supportive of the project. The citizens affected by the Uniontown to Brownsville section, for example, were so enthusiastic about the new highway that the commission green-lit that project earlier than scheduled.
“It was low-priority, but the grassroots support was so strong, we moved it up,” Mr. Kempf says.
As it turned out, that sub-project, slated to wrap up mid-2012, ended up being the last to receive construction funding.
MILES TO GO
The remaining three sub-projects to build the final 40 miles (64 kilometers) of expressway require another US$4 billion to US$5 billion to finish. All have passed environmental approval and some right-of-way acquisition. But until a new revenue source turns up, progress remains at a standstill.
These roads will carry tens of thousands of cars for the next 100 years. You have to make sure they are integrated into what that community wants.
The commission is exploring the possibility of public-private partnerships (PPP) to fill in the funding gap. It initially put out a request for proposals to PPP groups three years ago, but the potential revenue generated from future tolls wouldn't cover the remaining cost of construction, Mr. Kempf says.
However, now that the project is further along, the payoff might be more appealing— depending, of course, upon how financial markets fare and how the remaining sections are packaged.
“We have no illusions that we'll get all the money required to finish in one lump sum,” Mr. Kempf says. “But we do have hope that some additional money will come through so we can keep on building.”
Despite the delays and financial setbacks, the commission continues to push the project forward.
“I believe that infrastructure development can have a long-term benefit for the communities it serves,” Mr. Kirk says. “The community thinks this project is essential to our economic growth, and so do we.”
—Sarah Fister Gale
PM NETWORK NOVEMBER 2011 WWW.PMI.ORG