Nine miles of 11-mile Route 219 segment paved

Construction crews work along U.S. Route 219 between Somerset and Meyersdale in July 2018.

Six million dollars in federal funding has been secured for the resumption of environmental and engineering studies associated with upgrading the last two-lane section of U.S. Route 219 in Somerset County to a four-lane limited-access highway, state officials announced Monday.

The studies are intended to advance the completion of four-lane Route 219 from the southern end of the Somerset-to-Meyersdale bypass to the northern end of the soon-to-be-completed interchange with Interstate 68 in Garrett County, Maryland, a distance of about 5.5 miles, according to a PennDOT press release announcing the Appalachian Program Development funding.

Somerset County Commissioners Gerald Walker, Colleen Dawson and Pamela Tokar-Ickes each spoke in glowing terms Monday after learning that the funding had been secured.

Tokar-Ickes said she and her fellow commissioners were “thrilled.” Dawson added that she was “speechless.”

Walker called Monday “a great day” for Somerset County and for the region.

“This is a wonderful announcement from the Wolf administration and from Secretary Gramian,” said Tokar-Ickes. “It certainly is the funding that we need to advance the project, and (it) certainly is the news we’ve been anticipating to hear for a long time.”

“The announcement today is the culmination of what we’ve been working on all year,” said Walker. “We’ve made some huge advances this year on 219, and I know it’s been a trying year for everyone, but we have been moving forward. We got the entire route designated as a Critical Rural Freight Corridor. We worked with PennDOT to change their outlook on the unfinished portions of the Appalachian Development Highway System. Maryland finished their benefit-cost analysis.”

Maryland officials announced in October that a two-mile four-lane section of Route 219 there, extending north from I-68 to Old Salisbury Road near Grantsville, is expected to be completed by the end of the year. They’re expected to complete their last mile or so of the highway, from Old Salisbury Road north to the Pennsylvania border, once Pennsylvania has chosen a route for its Meyersdale-to-Maryland segment.

Walker said local and regional stakeholders “rolled out” a new study on the projected impact of the corridor’s completion to PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian during a conference call Monday – and, he said, “without much further ado, the secretary said, well, she was in total agreement. She was going to support the use of $6 million to move ahead with the preliminary engineering and design.”

“Continuing work on this important corridor is critical,” Gramian said in PennDOT’s press release announcing the funding. “Improving this section of roadway will not only create a safer connection between Somerset and Interstate 68, but will also help spur economic growth for the entire region.”

The impact study mentioned by Walker concluded that “the completion of the U.S. 219 corridor is of immense importance to the sustainability, expansion and profitability of businesses within the region,” according to Brandon Peters, transportation program manager for the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission, which conducted it with consultants Metro Analytics.

The study – officially called the “U.S. 219 (Corridor N) Completion Analysis & Impact Study” – included site visits to several businesses in Garrett and Somerset counties where executives said, in Peters’ words, that “they would be able to hire additional employees, expand facilities and operation, reach new markets more easily and increase annual output” if the highway were completed.

PennDOT officials noted that, while design funding for the project has now been secured, no construction funding has yet been identified.

They called it “imperative” that “federal, state and local officials continue to work closely on future funding solutions, not only for the U.S. 219 project, but to support Pennsylvania’s growing infrastructure needs.”

Walker said Monday’s funding “starts the dominoes” toward the completion of the project. It opens the door for funding through Pennsylvania’s Transportation Improvement Program, he added.

“Since I was a little girl,” Dawson said, “I’ve been waiting for 219 to be completed. I can remember my parents talking about how long it took to get to Johnstown. Then, I knew how long it took to get to Meyersdale. Now, the next generation will say, ‘Gee, it used to take so long to get to Maryland, to I-68, and we have that now within our grasp.’ This is terrifically exciting, and I am so honored to be a part of it and so thankful for all of our other stakeholders, both from Pennsylvania and from Maryland.”

In a press release, U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-Blair, called the funding “a key benchmark in the process” and “encouraging progress” toward the completion of the project, which he said would “advance economic opportunities in our region and make our roads safer.”

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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