Interstate 79
Raymond P. Shafer Highway


The main north-south artery for Western Pennsylvania, this Interstate is a major transportation route from Pittsburgh to Erie and points north.

Initially, this project was under the guidance of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. In the early 1950s, before the Interstate Act was passed, the state proposed a system of limited access toll highways that followed the routes of the current Interstates.  Interstate 79 would be comprised of two sections:  the Northwestern Extension that would run from Pittsburgh to Erie and the Southwestern Extension that would run from Pittsburgh to the West Virginia border.  

The Interstate Act was passed on June 29, 1956 and but construction would not begin until 1961 on the section from Exit 33 to Exit 38.  In 1962, the section from Exit 33 to Exit 34 opened to traffic and construction began on the sections from Exit 30 to Exit 33 and Exit 85 to Exit 88. In 1963, the sections between the Interstate 70 interchanges, from Exit 30 to Exit 33, and Exit 85 to Exit 87 opened to traffic while, construction began on several sections:  I-70 to Country Club Road, McMurray Road to the Allegheny County line, Exit 88 to Balder School Road, and the Mercer County line to the PA 58 overpass.

In 1964, the Department of Highways decided to reroute I-70 out of Pittsburgh and onto its current alignment south of the city.  They were following the rules that the main highway goes through a city, while a even numbered loop goes around the city.  So I-279 was proposed to bypass the city while I-79 entered via the Penn-Lincoln Parkway and proposed East Street Valley Expressway.  In the same year, the section from Exit 88 to Exit 96 opened to traffic, while construction began on the sections from Exit 14 to Exit 19, Country Club Road to Exit 41, Allegheny County line to Exit 54, and Exit 96 to the Mercer County line.

In 1965, the sections from Exit 38 to Exit 41 and Exit 96 to Exit 99 opened to traffic.  The same year construction began on several extensive sections:  Exit 19 to the Washington County line, Exit 51 to the Allegheny County line, PA 58 overpass to the District Road underpass, Exit 141 to the Damsville Road overpass, Exit 166 to Exit 174, and Exit 178 to Exit 182.  In 1966, construction got underway on yet more sections:  Exit 19 to Exit 30, Exit 154 to Exit 166, and Exit 174 to Exit 178.  In 1967, several sections were completed:  Exit 14 to Exit 19, Exit 23 to Exit 30, Exit 41 to Exit 54, and Exit 99 to Exit 121 which included the cloverleaf with Interstate 80.  As those sections opened, construction on the sections from Exit 54 to Exit 57, Aleppo Township line to the Borough of Franklin Park line, and Exit 147 to Exit 154 began.  In 1968, the sections from Exit 19 to Exit 23, Exit 54 to Exit 55, and Exit 178 to Exit 182 opened while the sections from Exit 57 to Exit 60, Butler County line to Exit 85, and the Damsville Road overpass to Exit 147 began.  The final year of the 1960s saw the completion of the Exit 154 to Exit 166 section while construction began on the parts from Exit 60 to Exit 64 and Exit 66 to the Aleppo Township line.

I-79 in 1970
I-79's progress by
October 20, 1970.
(Allegheny College)

In 1970, the sections from Exit 55 to Exit 57, Exit 78 to Exit 85, Exit 121 to Exit 141, and Exit 166 to Exit 178 opened to traffic.  The same year, construction began from the Borough of Franklin Park line to the Bradford Woods Road overpass.  In 1971, construction began on the section from Exit 7 to Exit 14.  That same year saw the I-79 and I-279 designations switch routes, with I-79 now bypassing the city while I-279 would be a spur into the city from the north as the I-76 designation had been extended through Pittsburgh to end at Interstate 79.  In 1972, the sections from Exit 60 to Exit 64 and Exit 141 to Exit 147 opened to traffic while construction began on the parts from the West Virginia state line to Exit 7 and Exit 64 to Exit 66.  In 1973, the section from Exit 57 to Exit 60 opened which included the three level stack interchange with the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.  The interchange itself opened in November 1973 after four years of delays caused by a long construction workers strike and by changes in state priorities in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agnes.  At $14 million, it was the most expensive interchange project ever built in the state at the time.  The same year, construction was extended from the Bradford Woods Road overpass to the Butler County line.  In 1974, the section from the West Virginia state line to Exit 1 opened to traffic.

The first exit numbers to appear on the 1975 PennDOT map showed I-79 with mileage based exit numbers, which in 2001 reappeared, from the Parkway West interchange north to Erie and sequential exit numbers from the West Virginia Line to Bridgeville.  The last time mileage based exit numbers were shown on I-79 was on the 1977 map.

I-79 Dedication Program
Program from the dedication on October 30,
1970.  (Allegheny College)

In 1976, the sections of Interstate 79 from Exit 1 to Exit 14 and Exit 60 to Exit 78 opened to create a seamless ribbon of expressway between West Virginia and Erie.  However, that was not the end of construction.  In 1982, construction began to extend the end of the Interstate to PA 5 which opened in 1984, and eliminated a temporary connection to Pittsburgh Avenue to the west that opened in 1975. Even though the designation ends at PA 5, the highway continues as an at-grade facility to the lakefront known as the Bayfront Parkway which opened on October 22, 1990 to spur development around the Flagship Niagara.

A hairline horizontal cracking was discovered on the $5 million bridge over Conneaut Swamp in Crawford County in November 1976.  The cracks were discovered while the span underwent resurfacing, which resulted in two, six-foot-long, 96-ton concrete box girders being removed while the bridge was closed and sent to the Fritz Engineering Laboratory at Lehigh University for studying.  One of the girders was topped by an eight-foot-wide concrete slab that was part of the bridge deck was delivered to the university in January 1977, and was the largest specimen ever handled by the lab.  "There was never any question about the adequacy of the beams," said Richard T. Fox, acting district engineer for PennDOT District 1.  "But from the standpoint of maintenance we expect those box girders to be maintenance-free for at least 50 years, so we felt it was vital to take them out immediately and have them tested."  The goal of the tests were to determine the ability of prestressed concrete bridges being built throughout the state at the time to handle increasing traffic loads not foreseen when they were first designed and planned.  "There's a growing concern among PennDOT officials that the type of box girders used on the Conneaut Swamp Bridge may have limited load-carrying capacity in view of anticipated heavy truck traffic on I-79," said Fritz Engineering Laboratory experts.  "The tests are also designed to identify any critical weaknesses in the Conneaut Swamp Bridge and to predict the fatigue life of the members of this bridge based on past load history and estimated future traffic."  Roger G. Slutter, professor of civil engineering and chief of operations at the lab said the girder had already been subjected to four times the weight load it was designed for "and it hasn't broken or split yet."  He added that testing would have to continue for another week or two before any definitive conclusions could be made.

Just five months after the last sections opened to traffic in 1976, including the $28.5 million Glenfield Bridge, the longest bridge in western Pennsylvania, a massive crack opened on the outer beams of the span over the back channel of the Ohio River between Coraopolis and Neville Island.  Dravo Corporation towboat captain Steve Muick, was piloting his boat "Ramrod" to break up ice in the back channel around noon on January 28, 1977, looked up while passing underneath the bridge and noticed what he thought at first was just a cable hanging down, but it was a crack that had developed.  As a towboat pilot, he always looked up while passing underneath bridges because kids would climb up underneath them and throw things down onto the boats.  On this day that proved to be a life-saving skill, and potentially spared this span the same fate as that of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis 30 years later.  He took note of the crack with every pass he took that day, and shockingly realized it was growing wider and taller.  He radioed his dispatcher to tell them what he discovered so they could relay it to authorities.  The crack had split the entire 10-foot-high girder and was estimated to be three inches wide at the bottom flange by PennDOT engineers.  While the arch suspension span across the main channel of the river was unaffected, state police closed both and rerouted traffic over the McKees Rocks and original Sewickley bridges.  The situation worsened when the latter had to be shut down as well just two days after the Interstate 79 span closed due to safety concerns over the brittle nature of the superstructure due to the cold weather.  Although the fissure only affected the outermost girder under the northbound lanes, the 300-foot-long beam bears weight of traffic from both directions and PennDOT felt it would not be prudent to allow southbound traffic to continue to cross the bridge.  Muick recalled in an interview that truck drivers were saying the pilot must be drunk to have gotten the traffic shut down, but he was very much sober.

Picture of towboat pilot Steve Muick who was hailed a hero
Towboat pilot Steve Muick being recognized for his reporting of the crack (WQED-TV)

The cold snap that gripped most of the nation at that time was initially blamed for the failure.  PennDOT engineers discovered that the expansion dams were frozen tight, failing to allow the bridge to contract and expand.  Allegheny County Commissioner Robert Peirce demanded a full-scale state investigation during an announcement on January 31.  His request in a letter to the Pennsylvania Attorney General Robert Kane came about the same time as PennDOT announced the span over the main channel of the Ohio River had reopened to traffic.  "The public must know what happened — who goofed — and how such mistakes can be prevented if we are ever to obtain their support in raising enough money to adequately repair the over 100 defective bridges in this county," declared Peirce.  The bridge was to last 50 years, "yet now after only five months the bridge is partially closed," Peirce wrote Kane.  "How can we expect the people to support costly but necessary expenditures (for bridge repair) if they lose confidence in government's ability to bridge bridges?"  Peirce wanted a formal investigation with testimony from all parties involved and a review of the records of PennDOT and the construction company involved in building the span.

An investigation was underway at the time, which consisted of: Bernard Kotalik, chief bridge engineer and Robert Cunliffe, chief council from PennDOT's Harrisburg headquarters; Ralph Romberger, division bridge engineer with the Federal Highway Administration; representatives of Richardson, Gordon, and Associates who designed the bridge; representatives from Bristol Iron and Steel Corporation, the company that fabricated the 200-foot-long girder; and Nalin H. Udani, PennDOT District 11 bridge engineer and three of his assistants.  "We're here to investigate the cause and not the legal liability for repairing the break," Cunliffe said, although the reason for him being in Pittsburgh was clear.  "The cause has to be determined first."  They were transported out to the site by, who else, but Steve Muick who discovered the crack.  The experts took precise measurements and examined the welds in the vertical panels of the beam, and discovered the crack in the bottom flange was 1⅝ of an inch wide and extended to the top of the vertical panel.  The top flange did not appear to be damaged; however, the bottom or "tension" flange, where the crack began, measured three inches thick and 30 inches wide.  Five inches is how far the span dropped when it was measured.  Theories that the fissure developed due to the weather and the expansion dams freezing were thrown out immediately due to no one recalling any modern bridges cracking due to weather, and the latter because the dams are made out of water-tight neoprene rubber.

Over the course of X-raying the welds used on the bridge during the week of February 6, discrepancies turned up which lead to the span over the main channel of the Ohio River closing again on February 10.  "To what degree the reports of discrepancies in the X-rays mean anything, nobody knows right now," a high-placed source with PennDOT said on February 11.  "It could be that the X-rays are at fault or there could be something in the steel.  But there does appear to be cloudy areas in the X-rays."  Transportation Secretary William Sherlock would neither confirm nor deny the theory, but that the entire span was closed as a precautionary measure to "give us a chance to make a complete inspection."  The entire structure was closed when X-rays of certain weld areas along the main span showed differences from when initial X-rays were taken as the bridge was under construction.  At least four of the weld are similar to the ones used around the area of the crack on the back channel span.  "All we can say at this point is that because the bridge failure occurred within an area near a weld, and since this type of weld was used on other areas of the bridge as well, including the main span, we have to consider the possibility of similar defects," said Jack Wilkes, director of the office of engineering for the Federal Highway Administration.  John Fisher, a professor of engineering at Lehigh University, was hired by PennDOT to direct the investigation, said on February 11 "no one really knows at this point what the cause of the crack was."  When pressed if the entire crossing was defective, Fisher deferred to PennDOT.  "As far as I know, no new cracks have been found," said Secretary Sherlock.  "What we are doing now is exploratory, checking everywhere that welds were used."  Inspectors planned to drill into the welds and then use a spectrograph to analyze the material content.  It was the electroslag welds that were determined to be the cause, which are no longer used in bridge construction, and others in the span were fixed during the course of repairs.

Repairs involved jacking the span back into place and spicing the two sides of the fissure together with heavy metal plates took place quickly and the bridge reopened to traffic at noon on April 1, 1977.  Acting Transportation Secretary George Pulakos said there would be no weight or vehicle restrictions even with minor "cleanup" work to continue during the following couple weeks which would necessitate periodic temporary lane closures.  While the span reopened, a project by a special panel of three university engineering professors who monitored the repair work and investigated the failure would continue.  It was this same panel who advised PennDOT that the bridge could reopen safely.  Secretary Pulakos was unable to say what the cost of the repair work totaled, but that it was covered by Bristol Iron and Steel Corporation.  "Due to the extreme importance of the bridge, we set out to repair it and reopen it to traffic as soon as possible," said Pulakos.  It was reported in 1999 that cracks were developing on the same span that was affected 22 years earlier, but that the new ones did not pose a threat to the span.

In the spring of 2000, work began on connecting I-79 directly to the Turnpike.  The project, called the Cranberry Connector Project, consisted of building a high-speed interchange between the two Interstates with access to and from US 19. Preliminary design for the connector began in 1989, but was delayed by funding shortfalls until value engineering was used in 1997 to trim $16 million off the total cost of the project.  The former Perry Highway, then renamed Cranberry Toll Plaza, was removed and instead a mainline one was built at milepost 30 on the Turnpike where the Butler Service Plaza used to stand just to the east of Exit 28.

This project hit a little snag on May 17, 2000.  When workers began lowering the 50 ton concrete beams into place for the seven-lane PA 228 overpass, they realized something:  the beams were six inches too long and wouldn't fit.  As a result, PennDOT had to put them into storage and buy 25 new ones built to the exact specifications, at a cost of $1.6 million.  The Department of Transportation paid about $50,000 to have the beams, which were built in Erie, shipped south on I-79, trucked back north to a state maintenance storage yard off US 422 in Portersville.  With this error, the price tag of this segment of the project went from $9.7 million to $11.6 million.  

The first ramps that were constructed as a part of the project opened on October 4, 2001.  These are the ramps leading from PA 228 to I-79 southbound, and from I-79 northbound to PA 228.

Groundbreaking took place on February 22, 2002 for the final leg of the project, which was the direct connection between I-79 and I-76/Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Secretary of Transportation, Bradley L. Mallory, along with state and local officials, attended the ceremony to kick off the $44.3 million project.  This segment of the work consisted of building an off-ramp from I-79 North to PA 228 and an on-ramp to I-79 South from PA 228.  Traffic signals were installed at the end of both ramps at PA 228.  These ramps opened on October 5, 2003.  Temporary ramps between the connector and US 19 opened on November 12, 2003.  At 10:30 AM, on June 22, 2004, Secretary of Transportation Allen D. Biehler, with state and local officials, cut the ribbon which signaled completion of the project.

Groundbreaking for the final section of the Cranberry Connector
Groundbreaking for the final section of the Cranberry Connector.
(Pennsylvania Department of Transportation)

Another connection that has been lacking will be taken care of finally.  On December 9, 2002, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission approved shifting $6.7 million in state and federal funds to the project so construction could get under way in 2005.  Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Engineer Ray Hack said the project will take two years and cost at least $50 million.  To head west on US 22 and US 30 before the interchange, travelers had to exit and travel PA 60, which has become congested with development.  "Everybody knows the ramps are long overdue," Hack said. "People who have to use Route 60 to and from the airport face nothing but traffic lights between I-79 and the parkway."  In addition, PennDOT will widen more than one mile of the Parkway West to three lanes in each direction between the I-79/I-279 interchange and Parkway View Industrial Park.  Hack went on to say, "Someday, the Parkway West will be three lanes in each direction between Pittsburgh and the airport."  Construction began in Summer 2006 and finished in 2008 marking the completion of the interchange after 30 years.  The ramp from I-79 southbound opened on November 24 and the ramp to I-79 northbound opened on December 9 and cost $67 million.

New ramps at I-79 and I-279
Location of proposed new ramps.
 
The future ramp from US 22/US 30 eastbound to I-79 northbound
The future ramp from US 22/US 30 eastbound to I-79 northbound.  (Ed Szuba)
 
Clearing for the ramp from I-79 southbound to US 22/US 30 westbound
Clearing for the ramp from I-79 southbound to US 22/US 30 westbound.  (Ed Szuba)

Another interchange that has had problems, but was eventually corrected, was the I-70/I-79 interchange east of Washington.  PennDOT had been planning a $30 million project to rebuild the interchange and eliminate the hairpin curve where I-79 north merges into I-70 westbound.  That location had been the scene of many accidents, many of which involved tractor-trailers traveling too fast and spilling their loads as they tried to negotiate the sharp turn.  One of the youngest victims of an accident there was five-year-old Tonya Watson, of Portland, Oregon, who died when the truck her father was driving overturned on the curve, and she ended up suffocating when the padding in the sleeping bunk of the cab pressed against her throat.  After that accident, a tall Jersey barrier was installed, additional signs and rumble strips were added to warn of the sharp curve, and the speed limit was also lowered to 25 MPH.

Michael Dufalla, PennDOT District 12 engineer, said, "That's been a problem to me since they built it."  He also noted that the interchange was built to 1950s' standards.  "Rarely did people go 60 or 65 miles per hour then," he said.  "Automobiles have progressed faster than we can rehab the roads."  The project will improve access in all directions and the ramp designed to handle higher speeds.  Additional land was purchased in order to rebuild the interchange, which began in Fall 2011.  The fly-over ramp from I-79 northbound to I-70 westbound opened to traffic at 5 PM on November 16, 2013.  The $35 million project will concluded in October 2014 after rehabilitation of two bridges that run underneath the ramp, additional lighting is added, and the Interstate is milled and paved.

The January 2004 weather was not kind to a four mile section from Kirwan Heights to the Parkway West.  As happened on that latter expressway, potholes began opening up on I-79 due to the cold weather and age of the highway.  The conditions were so bad early in the week of February 1 that state police shut down two lanes for four hours.  PennDOT laid down temporary patches, but started an $93 million project to rebuild this section in August 2004 which concluded two years later.

Demolition of the guiderails on the ramp from I-79 northbound to I-279 northbound
Demolition of the guiderails on the ramp from I-79
northbound to I-279 northbound.  (PennDOT)

The S-curve located between the PA 60 and PA 51 interchanges has been the scene of several rollover accidents:  two in 1997, one in 1999, five between March and July 2002, and one in 2004.  No rollover accidents were recorded in 2000, 2001, or 2003, and none since 1996 have resulted in deaths.  When I-79 was resurfaced in 2001, a larger warning sign was installed above the lanes to warn of the winding alignment ahead and the banking changed to make it easier for vehicles to remain on the Interstate while passing through the bends.  However, the biggest change took place on May 4, 2004 when the speed limit for cars was raised to 55 MPH, while trucks remain at 45 MPH.  Alerts are broadcast on the highway advisory radio station at 1630 AM and monitoring devices were installed that notify drivers of their speed.  A poster with a picture of a truck that rolled over in the S-curve with a warning message to drivers to adhere to the posted speed limit was put up at the rest area near Collier.  Another roll-over crash took place on August 20, 2018, and another only a few months later around 5 AM on January 23, 2019 which closed the northbound lanes until 1:30 PM.

PennDOT District 11 Traffic Engineer Todd Kravits was asked about the "S" bends.  He said that there had been 22 crashes since 2014 in both directions of the Interstate in that area with 11 of those involving trucks.  Kravits went on to say, "We may be initiating a study to see if its feasible for us to straighten out the "S" bends."  However he added, that "it's never going to be a straight shot, but the curves could be a lot smoother which would make it a lot easier to negotiate through the bends."  In the meantime, work is scheduled to begin on a new high-tech alert system with new electronic signs and equipment that will measure speed and determine the type of vehicle.  If it detects a truck traveling at 55 MPH or higher, it will send out a warning to the signs along and over the roadway.  The system went into operation on February 7, 2020.

Longwall mining again began to attack Interstate 79 in September 2004 when mining activities by the Foundation Coal Corporation, now Alpha Natural Resources, began underneath segments of the Interstate south of Waynesburg in Greene County.  Mining was completed in November 2009.  The Department of Environmental Protection deemed damage to the roadway as minimal with the majority being cracking and heaving along the edges of the northbound and southbound lanes which was easily fixed by PennDOT.

The northern Ohio River crossing has not had good luck what with cracks developing after it just opened, more developing in 1999, and then came June 14, 2005.  The high heat inundating the Pittsburgh area for the previous few days caused an expansion dam on the southbound side to become dislodged and rise.  The bridge was closed around 6:15 PM with traffic detoured off at PA 65 to the Sewickley Bridge and PA 51 back to I-79, then later the detour was changed to I-279.  Repair crews spent the night repairing the expansion dam and reopened the bridge at 5 AM the next morning, while bridge inspectors used a special crane to examine the underside of the bridge to assure no other damage had occurred.

Remedying old interchange design problems seems to be on the agenda all along Interstate 79 as work began April 12, 2010 to complete ramps at Exit 88 in Butler County.  The $18 million project included construction of a new southbound on-ramp and northbound off-ramp, improvements to the original ramps, installation of sound barriers, drainage, guide rail, pavement markings, and signage, and was completed December 20, 2011.  Not all were happy with the new ramps, as one resident who lost trees to the project was the only one whose were not replaced in her neighborhood.  PennDOT officials looked into the matter, and determined that they should have been replaced and were.  Similar work began March 28, 2011 in Washington County to complete the missing ramps at the Meadow Lands interchange.  The project included construction of a southbound exit ramp to Manifold Road, Locust Avenue, and Pike Street, construction of an on-ramp to the northbound side of I-79, installation of traffic signals at the ramps, new signage, and new lighting at the ramps.  The $22.4 million project came to an end on December 27, 2012.

On the morning of February 20, two Waynesburg University nursing students got some real-world experience and then some.  Alissa Boyle and Cami Abernehty were among several students and a professor who stopped to help a Washington man who had rolled his jeep around 6 AM in Greene County.  While helping the crash victim, the three had to jumped off an overpass to avoid being hit by an oncoming tractor-trailer and fell about 40 or 50 feet to the ground.  Another student also jumped, but held on to the edge of the overpass until others could pull him to safety.

Lake-effect snow showers from Lake Erie was the cause of a chain-reaction accident around noon on February 25, 2012 in Mercer County.  The pile-up involved 30 vehicles, including two commercial vehicles, occurred in the southbound lanes at mile marker 133.  The Interstate was shut down for 10 miles in each direction for about three hours while the accident was cleared.

 

Weather also played havoc with the roadway in March 2017 with a major accident and a power disruption.  The 20 vehicle pile-up took place on March 3 just before Exit 105 in the northbound lanes.  White-out conditions were blamed for the initial minor accident that bloomed into a major one involving that many vehicles, while others became stuck in the median trying to avoid adding to the pile-up.  Then a week later, weather caused power lines to come down between mile marker 84 and 85 around 11 AM.  The lines were repaired and the Interstate reopened shortly after Noon.

Keeping in that same theme, during the last week of May 2019, weather was not kind to Interstate 79.  On the evening of May 29, a bolt of lightning hit a telephone pole that carries lines along PA 910 and across the Interstate at Exit 73 in Franklin Park.  That pole snapped, causing a chain reaction with the weight of the lines falling causing the poles that carry the lines across Interstate 79 to lean.  Erring on the side of caution, PennDOT decided to close the roadway northbound between Exit 68 and Exit 75, southbound between Exit 73 and Exit 68, as well as the northbound off-ramp at Exit 73 around 5:30 PM until repairs could be made.  Due to the latter, northbound Interstate 279 had to be closed at Exit 8 which caused massive traffic congestion in the area.  "We were concerned with public safety with live wires above I-79,” a spokesman for the Department of Transportation said.  Penn Power crews responded and began to replace the leaning poles.  The Interstate reopened a little before 11 PM, with the exception of the northbound off-ramp which remained closed until repairs were completed which was a little after 5 AM the following morning.

When the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic swept into the country in March 2020, PennDOT took measures to stem the spread to their employees and staff.  At 12:01 AM on March 17, all rest areas and welcome centers across the state, including the ones in Greene, Allegheny, Lawrence, Mercer, and Crawford counties, were closed to the traveling public.  Also all Driver License and Photo License centers were closed for two weeks and construction projects on roads under the Department of Transportation's jurisdiction were stopped.  Hearing that construction work was halted could come as welcome news, the idea of closing down the rest areas did not sit well with truckers, trucking firms, nor some elected officials.  It was then announced that on Thursday, March 19, barricades would come down at 13 rest areas across the state, including the northbound one in Allegheny County and both in Crawford County, and they would be reopened with portable restroom facilities while the permanent facilities would remain closed.  "Every decision made has been in the interest of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and we are constantly reevaluating our response," said PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell.  "That said, we also recognize that drivers need and deserve access to rest areas."  PennDOT announced on March 24 that an additional 10 would reopen, including the ones in Lawrence and Mercer counties.  Those as well as the ones reopened earlier would provide normal service with additional cleaning and maintenance.  An additional five were reopened on Friday, March 27 which included the rest area/welcome center in Greene County.

With the amount of revenue from the gasoline tax falling due to more fuel-efficient vehicles as well as a drop in driving due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Transportation's budget has been taking a hit.  Nine bridges across the state are targeted to be a part of the PennDOT Pathways Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership (P3) Initiative, and were selected from various regions so as to not impact one part of the state more severely than another.  Toll gantries would be installed at the crossings and, because PennDOT is forbidden from collecting tolls, would be operated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission with E-ZPass and PA Turnpike TOLL BY PLATE equipment to read tags or captures license plates with tolls ranging from $1 to $2 for cars.  The cost for trucks has yet to be determined but would be based on a combination of height and number of axles.  The PTC would then forward the money to the Department of Transportation for replacement or rehabilitation and continued maintenance of the bridges.  One that is being looked at is the widening, bridge replacement, and interchange reconfiguration project at Exit 54 in Allegheny County.  Needless to say, the public, legislators, and trucking companies were not pleased to hear this news.  During an Appropriations Committee hearing on February 23, 2021, where more than a half dozen committee members questioned Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian about the potential tolls, state Representative Mike Carroll of Luzerne County reminded his colleagues they had no one to blame but themselves.  He mentioned that the Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board was created by a 2012 law passed that delegated approval for just this situation to appointees of the governor and top lawmakers.  While Representative Carroll did not vote for the bill, others who are now criticizing the prospect of bridge tolls did.

Brandon Moree, director of members communications for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, which represents about 1,400 trucking firms, has been encouraging members to contact legislators and fill out online surveys by PennDOT about the proposal.  The group supported the Act 89 legislation passed in 2013 that increased funding through a rise in the fuel tax.  "Here we are seven years later and we’re being asked to pay the bill again," Moree said.  "We feel we already pay our fair share.  We feel like where fuel taxes already are, we pay enough."  Rick Daley, president of PMTA’s Western Pennsylvania district and a vice president at Tri-State Trailer Sales Inc. on Neville Island in Allegheny County, suggested an alternative would be for the state to help train more truck drivers, because he’s aware of many companies that could ship more loads if they had more drivers, and therefore would pay more taxes and fees.  Others are also questioning whether the cost of installing the tolling gantries and associated equipment outweighs the benefit from the small tolls proposed for cars.  The Federal Highway Administration still has to review the plan and decide if tolls are allowed to be charged.  The Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, a prominent highway construction trade association in the state, came out on March 24, 2021 to oppose the idea.  While the group generally supports tolling to fund projects, Executive Vice President Robert Latham explained to the House Transportation Committee that the cost of private financing would drive up project costs and relying on tolling to cover construction costs is risky.

The State Senate passed a bill on April 28, 2021 to force PennDOT to start the planning process over by providing more transparency about its proposals, publicly advertising them, opening the plan up to public comments, and seeking approval from both the governor and the Legislature.  The bill passed 28 to 19 with support from all of the Republican senators and one Democrat senator.  During the floor debate, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, citing successful transportation funding efforts have usually required cooperation between lawmakers, said "This initiative and the way it is being advanced is totally counter to that legacy."  Senator John Sabatina from Philadelphia said, "As much as I loathe to tax my constituents to fix a bridge, I'd rather tax them than have them suffer through a catastrophe when the Girard Point Bridge falls down."  He added, sooner or later "a bridge is going to collapse and we're all going to look at each other and say, 'how did that happen?  How could we have prevented that?'"   The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, but it will probably not go further as Governor Wolf opposes it and the Senate lacks a veto-proof majority.

On July 16, 2021, US Representative Guy Reschenthaler proposed an amendment to the annual transportation funding bill to prohibit PennDOT from using federal money if it imposes tolls on bridges or roadways that are part of the federal highway system.  "This is nothing more than a tax on Pennsylvania's workers and families who use these bridges every day to travel to work and school," Representative Reschenthaler said during the introduction to his amendment during a markup hearing by the House Appropriations Committee.  "It would disproportionately impact our nation's tradesmen, medical professionals, and others who aren't part of what I call the 'Zoom class,'" he added.  The amendment was rejected by a 33 to 24 vote.  US Representative David Price, chair of the subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, said that it was outside the jurisdiction of the committee to rule of state tolling plans and punish states for imposing certain tolls.  "It would pre-empt the commonwealth's authority to make decisions on this at the local or state level where the authority currently lies," Representative Price said.  It would "be reconstituting this committee as the Pennsylvania Board of Transportation."  While not completely endorsing the tolling plan, the Federal Highway Administration acknowledged that PennDOT is considering the right options when looking at new sources of revenue in a statement they issued in mid-October 2021 in what is referred to as a "concurrence."

Pete Linko, a local resident, began an online petition against the tolling plan which had garnered nearly 3,000 signatures by the end of October 2021.  "I started this petition because I knew that there were so many in our area that had no idea that PennDOT had the plan to toll I-79," Linko said.  "We wanted to make sure that they were able to voice their opinions on why it was going to affect them negatively."  He feels that if the tolls are added, it would push thousands of commuters to use PA 50 and Washington Pike which would create more congestion.  "I know there are people that have to traverse up and down the stretch road multiple times a day.  That’s going to be an extra burden on them.  People that are just trying to put food on the table.  Now they have to pay an extra tax just to go to work.  It’s not fair to them," Linko said.  "PennDOT put this strategically in this spot because they knew they could make a lot of money off of it.  One hundred thousand commuters go up and down that road every day.  The unfortunate thing is that now people are going to have to pay the price because of PennDOT’s mismanagement of funds."  Linko said the Department of Transportation is the root of the problem, and an added toll would hurt the economy and infrastructure in the surrounding communities.  "PennDOT needs to remember this, that the bureaucrats in Harrisburg are paid.  Their salaries are paid by our tax dollars and these projects are funded by our tax dollars.  We are the boss of PennDOT and if the people stand together, we send our message straight to them and say we are against this, they will have to listen.  People need to understand that their voice matters when it comes to things like this because it’s their money ultimately," Linko said.

A lawsuit was filed against PennDOT on November 11, 2021 on behalf of the citizens of South Fayette Township, Collier Township, and Bridgeville to stop the tolling of the PA 50 bridge.  In the suit, South Fayette Township contends that the toll would be a financial burden to local drivers and would cause drivers to take locals roads to avoid the toll.  In addition, they fear it would lead to an increase in congestion and accidents.  The suit also contends PennDOT failed to submit the plan to the General Assembly and failed to consult with those directly affected by the project.  The lawsuit was filed in Commonwealth Court asking a judge to grant a permanent injunction to prevent what South Fayette Township claims would be immediate and irreparable harm to the township and its residents.

The plan suffered a setback on November 16, 2021 when the Pennsylvania House passed a bill to void the proposal.  State representatives voted 125 to 74 to require legislative approval to add tolls as well as requiring PennDOT to publicly advertise any toll proposals, take public comments, and require approval from both the governor and Legislature.  The legislation requires a Senate vote but faces opposition from Governor Tom Wolf.  While the United States Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ten days earlier, the tolling plan would pay for the repair or reconstruction of the bridges and keep the influx of federal dollars for other projects across the state.  "We are all elected to represent our areas and have a voice for them, but the way this transpired, we did not have a voice," said Representative Sheryl Delozier, whose district would be affected by proposed tolls on the John Harris Memorial Bridge on Interstate 83 in Harrisburg.  Representative Mike Carroll of Luzerne County, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, cited Republicans having turned aside a Democratic proposal to require approval of specific projects by the Legislature when the Public Private Transportation Partnership was approved by the majority Republican General Assembly in 2012.  "It was your caucus' idea," Representative Carroll told House Republicans.  "You voted for it — your caucus.  You advanced it to Governor Corbett and he signed it."  Representative Tim Hennessey, the Transportation Committee chairman, mentioned the new infrastructure bill being a "sudden influx of money" which could be used to fund bridge repairs.  "Frankly, the citizens of Pennsylvania will have a hard time understanding the need for tolling in light of that," Representative Hennessey said.  However, Representative Carroll warned that "Every single county in the state will have projects that do not get done if we have to dedicate $2 billion of the $4 billion to fix nine bridges."

On February 24, 2022, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian told the Senate Appropriations Committee at a hearing on the 2022-2023 budget that the department is willing to consider alternatives to tolling but hasn't seen any other ideas that would generate the $2.5 billion needed to replace the nine bridges.  She said the state is about $8.1 billion short on needed road and bridge funding every year, and the department is proposing a public-private partnership where the bridges would be turned over to a private company for replacement and maintenance for 30 years with the tolls paying the cost.  For example, with the tolling, the bridge replacement project on Interstate 79 would include replacing 14 bridges and ramps and adding a lane in each direction, but without tolling, the two main bridges carrying the Interstate over PA 50 would be replaced.  Ms. Gramian stressed the importance keeping the nine bridges open without weight restrictions and replacing them before they have to be closed.  The still will receive $4 billion over five years through the federal infrastructure program, but that will just address the shortfall.  She said the state needs to spend $1 billion of its own money to get that, so the state will still be short.  The department was in the process of reviewing proposals from two teams of contractors that submitted formal proposals after three had originally expressed interest in the project.  They refused to identify the group which dropped out and expected to choose a contractor within the following weeks.  One of the proposals was from a group with an international firm as the leader and the other a national firm.  Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, Jr. questioned why specifications were written to exclude Pennsylvania firms from being the lead.  PennDOT’s director of the Alternative Funding Program, Ken McClain, said only large firms have the capacity to handle projects of this size, but the contract will be written so that Pennsylvania firms get 65% of the work.  Under questioning from Senator Devlin Robinson, McClain said the bridges were picked because they were all built in the early 1960s, have deterioration, need upgrades such as wider shoulders and higher side railings, and were chosen to give geographical balance to distribute the impact.  He added the department is committed to keeping any excess money beyond usage for construction, maintenance, and a reserve fund, from tolling for projects in the area of the tolled bridge.  Studies would have been conducted after tolls were implemented to see whether a large volume of motorists were using local roads to avoid the toll and make improvements on those roads where needed.

On March 9, 2022, the Department of Transportation announced it had picked a consortium of companies, now called Bridging Pennsylvania Partners, to manage construction on up to nine bridges.  It said the group was chosen from among three finalists, but it had not decided which of the nine bridges would be eventually tolled.  The winning applications included three international firms:  US-based subsidiaries of Israel-based Shikun & Binui, a development subsidiary of Australia-based Macquarie Group, and Spanish construction firm FCC Construcción.  The application included four other firms which specialize in design or heavy construction and have US-based parent companies with a headquarters in Pennsylvania.  PennDOT and the consortium was to have entered into a "pre-development agreement" to finalize the design and packing of the bridges to be built, financed, and maintained.  The department was in the midst of conducting public hearings and environmental reviews on the bridges.  The first bridges was scheduled to be under contract by December 2022, and after the design process, construction expected to begin between Fall 2023 and Spring 2024.

One of the final steps before tolling could begin was that the Federal Highway Administration would have to review the plans.  US Representative Glenn "GT" Thompson met with the FHWA during the week of March 6 to raise concerns over the PennDOT program, specifically the "grave economic and safety impacts these proposals will have on the local communities and the Commonwealth."  The administration said that the Department of Transportation would have to go through the National Environmental Policy Act process for each bridge that is planned to be tolled.  The NEPA evaluates environmental and related social and economic effects of a proposed action and includes citizen involvement.  "While FHWA does not have the authority to outright reject PennDOT’s bridge tolling proposals, it does have a duty to provide adequate oversight of the process, which to this point, has had zero accountability to anyone – most of all to local stakeholders and the traveling public," Thompson said.  "While this will slow the pace of PennDOT’s proposals, the Biden Administration should not turn a blind eye to PennDOT’s haphazard plans."  Secretary Yassmin Gramian reported that PennDOT reached out to more than 60,000 homes and businesses statewide, but did not indicate how they felt about the proposed bridge tolling.  "The Secretary likes to boast that public engagement and feedback has been central to PennDOT`s bridge tolling plan," Thompson said.  "However, we know that more than 90% of Pennsylvanians vehemently oppose bridge tolling."

All of this back-and-forth would be for naught when on May 18, 2022, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler granted a preliminary injunction to halt the tolling plans.  The ruling came in response to the lawsuit filed by municipalities in the Harrisburg area that objected to tolling the John Harris Memorial Bridge on Interstate 83.  A PennDOT spokesperson said that evening that they were reviewing the opinion.  The judge's order prohibits PennDOT from taking any further action which includes conducting studies, hearings or meetings, design development, right-of-way acquisition, tolling, construction, or expenditure of any funds.  On April 25, PennDOT argued in court that the municipalities lacked standing to bring their complaints and had no active claim because any claimed impact from the project hadn't occurred yet.  In her opinion, Judge Ceisler wrote that the municipalities involved in the suit do indeed have standing to state a claim as they have both a substantial and direct interest in the matter.  Furthermore, she wrote that the petitioners were denied proper procedure when PennDOT approved the Pathways Bridge Public-Private Partnership (P3) without consulting them, and that not identifying specific bridges in the initiative was a violation by the board.   "[The Act] plainly requires this consultation to precede approval: the Board’s duty is to consult with those affected by 'proposed' transportation projects, not projects already approved," Ceisler wrote. "All evidence in the record points to the conclusion that the board did not consult with affected persons before approving the initiative; instead, it (or, more accurately, [PennDOT]) purported to do so afterward, once specific bridges were announced."  The judge also found the board never showed any finding that the partnership was in the best interest of the Commonwealth as required by law.  "At best, the board’s interest determination is implicit; at worst, the board failed to make any finding at all," the judge wrote.  "The board essentially approved a massive multi-billion dollar infrastructure initiative on an admittedly meager record, consisting of a 4-page recommendation from [PennDOT], a presentation, and minimal discussion, and without understanding which, or how many, pieces of public infrastructure the initiative would affect."

Even still, a group of Republican state senators held a rally at the state capitol on June 8 to protest the tolling of the nine bridges.  The lawmakers were joined by members of the No P3 Bridge Tolling coalition, a group of chambers of commerce, business owners, and local officials that was created to oppose PennDOT's tolling plan.  It turns out, on June 30, 2022, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court permanently blocked the plan to toll the nine bridges.  PennDOT spokesperson Alexis Campbell said the legislature "failed" to offer solutions beyond the P3 program to assist with infrastructure funding.  She said the department was reviewing the opinion when asked if PennDOT indented to appeal to the state Supreme Court.  "The Wolf administration continues to welcome discussions with the General Assembly on alternative funding sources that can replace the gas tax, which is no longer a dependable source of funding to meet all bridge and highway needs in this commonwealth," she said.

In the aftermath of the decision, US Representative Glenn "GT" Thompson called on Secretary of Transportation, Yassmin Gramian, to resign.  "For more than a year, I have voiced my concerns to PennDOT Secretary Gramian that the agency was putting forth an untenable tolling proposal.  Along the way, she made it clear through her actions that public engagement was merely an afterthought.  This was apparent when she refused to take questions from federal and state legislators at a field hearing last spring in Clarion.  Under Secretary Gramian, PennDOT has wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer funds through her quest to impose a new tax upon Pennsylvanians and the traveling public," Rep. Thompson said.  "She has violated both the law and the public’s trust — Secretary Gramian should resign, effective immediately."  In response, the Wolf Administration issued the following response:  "It is unfortunate that Congressman Thompson– who voted NO on the legislation that is now the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law– is wasting taxpayer time and money spewing false claims regarding PennDOT’s public engagement. Instead of playing political games, the congressman’s time would be better spent working on a solution for alternative funding sources that will support Governor Wolf’s desire to phase out Pennsylvania’s gas tax. Pennsylvanians deserve solutions, not pr stunts.  Secretary Gramian is an incredible leader and highly-qualified infrastructure expert with more than 30 years of experience in the industry.  The governor is proud she serves the commonwealth, and that she will continue to do so."

Even with the courts putting the kybosh on the plan, PennDOT could still work with the group of contractors and investors led by Australian-based Macquarie Infrastructure Developments, LLC known as the Bridging Pennsylvania Partners.  The only problem is that the department would still need to find a way to fund the work, which for all nine bridges, would add up to about $2.5 billion.  A bill passed by the General Assembly on July 7 and signed by Governor Tom Wolf on July 11, puts more restrictions on how public-private partnerships can be established.  The bill also allows the state to move forward with Macquarie so it doesn't lose $14.8 million in preliminary work the group and PennDOT had done over the previous 18 months, as well as giving the General Assembly more time to review partnership deals.  "Now that [the bill] is officially official, we'll get rolling," said PennDOT spokesperson Alexis Campbell.  "These bridges are important and we want to make sure we can get them done and have as much money available as possible to get our other work done."  A spokesperson for Macquarie said the state has informed them to be on stand-by while it decides how to proceed.  If it walks away from the deal, the state would owe the company a relatively small amount of money.

Links:
Exit Guide
Interstate 79 Ends
Interstate 79 Pictures
Bayfront Parkway
Interstate 79 - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Interstate 79 - David Steinberg
I-79 Neville Island Bridge - Bruce Cridlebaugh
I-79 Neville Island Back Channel Bridge - Bruce Cridlebaugh
Interstate 79 Pictures - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Interstate 79 Pictures - Steve Alpert
Interstate 79 Photos - Valerie Deane
Raymond P. Shafer:  Highways - Allegheny College


Information INFORMATION
Southern Terminus: West Virginia state line one-half mile south of Mount Morris
Northern Terminus: PA 5/PA 290 and Bayfront Parkway at Exit 183 in Erie
Length: 183.30 miles
National Highway System: Entire length
Names: Raymond P. Shafer Highway
Pittsburgh-Erie Expressway
SR Designations: 0079
0070:  Exit 34 to Exit 38
Counties: Greene, Washington, Allegheny, Butler, Lawrence, Mercer, Crawford, and Erie
Multiplexed Route: I-70:  Exit 34 to Exit 38 in Washington
Former Designations: I-70 (1957 - 1964):  Exit 38 to Exit 59A
I-179 (1958 - 1959):  Exit 178 to Exit 180
I-279 (1958 - 1971):  Exit 59A to Exit 72
Former LR Designations: 1030:  West Virginia state line to 1.5 miles north of Exit 30
1008: 1.5 miles north of Exit 30 to Exit 34
798:  Exit 34 to Exit 30
1016:  Exit 30 to Exit 72
1021:  Exit 72 to Exit 116
1017:  Exit 116 to Exit 178
1013:  Exit 178 to PA 5/Bayfront Parkway
Yellow Belt
Belt System:
Exit 65 to Exit 66
Emergency: 911
PennDOT
Traffic Cameras:
Bridgeville North
Chartiers Creek
Prestley Road
Kirwin Heights Interchange
Thoms Run Road
Collier Avenue
Carnegie South
Carnegie
Ewing Road
Pittsburgh Interchange South
Pittsburgh Interchange North
West Harbison Road
PA 60
Clever Road
S-Bend Northbound Entrance
First Bend (Northbound)
Second Bend (Northbound)
Third Bend (Northbound)
Third Bend (Southbound)
PA 51
Deer Run Road
Kilbuck Street
Duff Road
Glenfield Road
Mount Nebo Road
Red Mud Hollow South
Red Mud Hollow North
Magee Road Extension
Nicholson Road
Rochester Road
Wedgewood Drive
PA 910
Advisory Radio: 1630

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Page updated September 30, 2022.
Content and graphics, unless otherwise noted, copyright © Jeffrey J. Kitsko. All rights reserved.
Information sign courtesy of Richard C. Moeur.
Allegheny County Belt System shield courtesy of Bruce Cridlebaugh.
Information courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Rand McNally, WTAE-TV Pittsburgh, KDKA-TV Pittsburgh, WPXI-TV Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Greensburg Tribune-Review, The Pittsburgh Press, KYW-TV Philadelphia, Bruce Cridlebaugh, Len Pundt, Washington Observer-Reporter, WTAJ-TV Altoona, Cranberry Patch, and Flying Off the Bridge to Nowhere.