MEYERSDALE – The opening of a four-lane, limited-access section of U.S. Route 219 between Somerset and Meyersdale has made it easier for visitors to patronize the region’s businesses, given employers access to a wider pool of job candidates and made positive outcomes more likely for patients at Meyersdale’s hospital.
That was the message delivered on Thursday by business executives, civic leaders and politicians at an event marking the one-year anniversary of the opening of that 11-mile section of highway.
G. Henry Cook, chairman of the board of Somerset Trust Co. and a leading advocate for the highway project, described the event, held at Morguen Toole Co. in Meyersdale, as “a celebration for getting the road this far and a recommitment on all of our parts to getting this last stretch done.”
By “this last stretch,” Cook was referring to the last section of two-lane Route 219 in Somerset County, a 5.5-mile segment between Meyersdale and the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Building a four-lane highway over that route, together with the completion of a corresponding project in Maryland, would connect Somerset and Cambria counties to Interstate 68 over a four-lane, limited-access corridor.
Aaron Thomas, president of the Meyersdale Merchants Association, said some Meyersdale-area business owners have told him they’ve seen more customers since the new highway opened last November. The Pennsylvania Maple Festival and the Somerset County Fair, both of which are held in the Meyersdale area, drew big crowds this year because the new Route 219 section made it easier for people to get there, he added.
“They’re coming into our retailers and they’re buying goods and services,” he said, referring to visitors from outside the Meyersdale area. “They’re eating at our restaurants. They’re buying different things, and they’re setting up accounts at our banks. They are here enjoying our town. They are staying overnight at our bed-and-breakfasts. … All of this is because of the opening of 219.”
Thomas, who also works in information services at Conemaugh Meyersdale Medical Center, added that the new highway segment makes it easier for patients to get to the hospital – and shortens the trip by road from Meyersdale to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, a Level I trauma center, on days when the weather is so bad that medical helicopters can’t fly safely.
“Now,” he said, “patients coming to the hospital can get to our emergency room much quicker, and the quicker they get to our emergency services, the quicker they get to care, the better the outcome for our patients.”
Shawn Kaufman, director of human resources for Somerset County-based Riggs Industries, said that he’s received resumes in the past year from job candidates from as far away as Meyersdale and Grantsville, Maryland. He attributed that to the easier commute offered by the new Route 219 section.
“When (Meyersdale residents) commute to our facilities in Boswell and Somerset,” he said, “it saves them 15 minutes, and it saves them the worst 15 minutes of their drive every day. Half an hour a day they get back. … We’re able to recruit from a much larger area, and now employees have the choice of where they want to work. They’re not as constrained as they were. It’s caused businesses like ours to become more competitive.”
Lee Murdy, controller for Bill Miller Equipment Sales near Frostburg, Maryland, which sells and rents heavy earthmoving equipment, said four-lane highways hold up better than two-lane roads under the wear and tear caused by such equipment. They also help the company to save money on fuel and on the permits they’re required to obtain before they move large pieces of equipment from place to place, he added.
“We’re about three miles off of (Interstate) 68,” he explained, “so if we can get on 68 and then jump on 219, we’re really saving money on permits. It’s the smaller roads that really kill us. … When we’re trying to plan a move, the transportation authorities in the state say, ‘OK, you can use this road.’ The next state says, ‘You can use this road,’ but the two don’t connect. It’s a never-ending hassle. If we have a good network of four-lane roads, it’s a lot easier to move machines a lot quicker.”
Similarly, Tom Moran, manager of business development for Corsa Coal Corp., said finishing the last segment of Route 219 would make it easier for coal trucks to get from the company’s Casselman mine near Grantsville to its Cambria Preparation Plant in Somerset County.
Many of those present at Thursday’s gathering paid tribute to the memory of the late Commissioner John P. Vatavuk, an avid booster of Route 219. Cutting the ribbon on the new section of the highway on Nov. 21, 2018, was one of his last acts in public office; he died of cancer on Jan. 27, just over two months later. Cook described Vatavuk as “probably the most passionate advocate for this road that I’ve ever encountered.”
“This is John Vatavuk’s day, in my mind,” said Colleen Peterson, chair of the Greater Cumberland Committee’s North-South Appalachian Highway Work Group.
Also during Thursday’s event, Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, spoke on the boost the new highway has given Somerset County’s coal industry, and Somerset County Commissioner Gerald Walker gave an update on efforts by elected officials to secure funding for the completion of Route 219 and of the entire Appalachian Development Highway System.
Many attendees signed their names to copies of a form letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, praising the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) initiative and asking her office for guidance in exploring opportunities to fund the completion of Route 219.
Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @markpesto.