After decades of pushing, Route 219 extension opens in Somerset County

A truck passes a sign on U.S. Route 219 on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, announcing that the 11-mile section between Somerset and Meyersdale is now open.

With federal officials mulling a potentially unprecedented infrastructure bill, Somerset County’s commissioners are pushing for a bipartisan pitch by lawmakers in five states that would provide $1.75 billion for highways and bridges in the Appalachians.

It’s a plan that would invest hundreds of millions of dollars over five years into incomplete Appalachian Development Highway System roads such as U.S. Route 219.

Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes and fellow board members said they are keeping a close eye on the bill, noting it would restore the system’s funding to pre-2012 levels.

Route 219 is part of Corridor N in the system, and funding was awarded over the past year to begin engineering studies needed to widen the last 51/2 miles of the highway in Somerset County. But there’s no funding yet for the final construction – a project that would likely cost several hundred million dollars or more.

The Appalachian Development Highway System was mapped out in 1965 to better connect a rural section of the nation isolated by its rugged terrain. At the time, one in three people in Appalachia lived in poverty. Today, 9% of the systems’ roads – approximately 276 miles of highway – remain unfinished, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said.

While it might seem like a small percentage, it’s standing in the way of the ability to move billions of dollars in goods through those regions, creating 47,000 jobs in the process.

“President Biden has made infrastructure investments a cornerstone of his presidential agenda, and this is the perfect opportunity to make good on the promise made to Appalachia so many years ago,” Manchin said in a release to media.

In Pennsylvania, U.S. Sen Bob Casey, a Democrat, is also co-sponsoring the bill alongside Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

In the House of Representatives, U.S. Reps. David Trone, D-Maryland, and Gary Palmer, R-Alabama, are co-sponsoring the bill.

Somerset’s commissioners have hired two consulting firms to lobby leaders in Washington, D.C., to get the final stretch of Route 219 built in their region. That includes pushing for support within other infrastructure proposals, which are tied to broadband internet projects, bridge-building and other efforts currently being debated in the House and Senate.

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

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