by Kecia Bal, Tribune-Democrat
EBENSBURG – Proponents of an effort to mobilize local and county officials to support Route 219 as an international trade corridor from Toronto to Miami put out a call to make completing the four-lane highway in Cambria County their top infrastructure priority.
Members of the Route 219 advocacy group, Continental 1, pitched their concepts to Cambria County leaders Friday in what they said they hope evolves into a local “Complete 219” group.
“Our vision is to do a grass-roots initiative, to get people bona fide excited,” Continental 1 board President and Somerset Trust Co. CEO Henry Cook said. “We’ve got to get all of Cambria County focused as having the No. 1 highway task being 219.”
The step northward comes on the heels of progress in Somerset County – the result of years of local effort – where construction crews are in a second phase of construction on an 11-mile stretch of Route 219 from Meyersdale to Somerset.
With more work unfolding now on the route in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Route 219 is seeing more simultaneous progress than it has in 30 or maybe even
50 years, Executive Director Meg Lauerman said.
“This is the ‘rural last mile,’ ” she said. “We have to identify projects to make the existing highway as safe as it can be, and we have to identify short sections – 10 miles or less – down or up.
“This is what’s working in Bradford right now. This is what’s working in Somerset.”
Jim Frank, a staff member from U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster’s office, said smaller projects are more likely to land funding, and Shuster is pushing for a six-year transportation funding bill.
“Massive, large scale projects are not on the table right now,” he said. “What (Shuster has) heard in our states and communities is there’s a need for that long-term bill.”
Cook said shorter projects are gaining momentum, creating collective improvements.
“(Across several states), almost $1 billion is being spent right now,” he said. “This is not a dead project, though it pretty much is in northern Cambria County. Let’s start telling elected officials this is, head and shoulders, the most important.
“Let us not have confused agendas here.”
Cambria County Commissioner Doug Lengenfelder read a statement on his priorities: continuing the route’s development, including making improvements to the current Route 219 shortcut around Northern Cambria – 3.1 miles of Sunset Road between Carrolltown and Pennsylvania Route 36. He said that stretch of road needs climbing lanes, reduced hair-pin curves and other safety alterations. Lengenfelder said he also hopes to see better access to the Hastings Area Industrial Complex.
Commissioner Mark Wissinger said making those changes, a step he said should cost less than $20 million, is the No. 1 priority. The access road for the industrial complex and potential to improve Route 56 out of Johnstown are critical, too, he said.
“We’re kind of torn here,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Chernisky said both the local improvements need attention as well as the international trade corridor concept.
“In reality, I don’t think the fed government is going to say here are billions to do it, but we can do it 5 or 10 miles at a time,” he said. “If each community works together, we can get this done, over time. People in the northern part of the county – I really believe – want to see a four-lane Route 219 completed to Canada.
“That’s commerce right there.”
Penn Highlands Penn Highlands President Walter Asonevich said the three higher education providers in the northern half of Cambria County – St. Francis University in Loretto, Mount Aloysius College in Cresson and Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s Ebensburg campus – are somewhat isolated, so a completed Route 219 would create
opportunity beyond business growth.
“We’re virtually inaccessible to the northern half of the county,” he said. “We need a better highway to get us north and south.”