SOMERSET – As President Joe Biden and key Republican senators huddle up this week to try to reach a bipartisan federal infrastructure bill, Somerset County’s commissioners will be awaiting every update.

Viewed as the county’s best chance to get crucial funding needed to complete the final four-lane stretch of U.S. Route 219 through Somerset County, the board has been meeting monthly for updates from the two consulting groups hired to lobby for the project and while progress has been slow at times, it also has been encouraging, President Commissioner Gerald Walker said.

“Even through COVID, there has been progress – and compromises being made ... to drive this bill forward,” Walker said. “And even though we don’t know what the final bill will look like ... we’re continuing to see work to get the (Appalachian Development Highway System) funding increased.”

That’s a good sign, given that completing the Pennsylvania-Maryland section of Route 219 – dubbed “Corridor N” – is a major priority within that 13-state highway system.

Last year, Somerset County Commissioners hired two firms, D.C.-based Pendulum Strategies and South Carolina-based Nelson Mullins, to win support for the project on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Both employ consultants with local ties.

Somerset Area graduate Mike Frazier worked under longtime U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, D-Mass., before serving in government affairs within the U.S. Department of Transportation and, later, lobbying under Pendulum.

Nelson Mullins’ roster includes Ron Klink, a onetime TV news anchor-turned Western Pennsylvania congressman who now works in Nelson Mullins’ Washington, D.C., office.

On Tuesday, the board voted to extend their deals another year at a rate of $5,000 per month.

County officials are optimistic that investment will pay off.

Getting new highway miles built is a challenging task, particularly during an era highway dollars has shifted to trying to upkeep current roads and bridges.

But recent momentum supports their cause, the board noted.

• Maryland transportation officials completed a more-than-1-mile segment that extends a new four-lane highway north from Interstate 68 toward the state line.

• The region secured $6 million in November to complete environmental and engineering design studies for the final 5.5-mile leg from just south of Meyersdale to the Mason-Dixon line.

• Maryland and Pennsylvania state transportation officials are finalizing agreements to select a firm that would handle that work on both ends with a goal of finding the right route to link both states’ roadways, Commissioner Colleen Dawson said.

Federal lawmakers have been debating different proposals for a multi-year transportation funding bill, with Biden proposing a broader infrastructure bill that he says would boost jobs, build roads and also include a $100 million investment into another kind of highway by expanding high speed broadband internet through rural America.

Biden’s plan also carries a far larger price tag – $2.2 trillion, compared to the $568 billion bill GOP leaders proposed.

But influential veteran lawmakers on both sides – Biden, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham included – have all signaled they are willing to compromise to get a bipartisan deal in place.

Graham said this week a $900 billion deal could be realistic if new taxes aren’t part of it.

Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said she hopes both sides can find common ground.

“There’s going to be a lot of debate over the amount and size of the bill, but there’s not a congressional district in this country that doesn’t have significant infrastructure needs,” Tokar-Ickes added. “This isn’t a partisan issue.” 

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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