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Upper St. Clair considers formal opposition to I-79 toll plan
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Upper St. Clair Township is poised to join nearby municipalities in opposing plans to subject Interstate 79 to tolling.

At their regular meeting April 5, township commissioners will vote on a resolution that cites potentially negative impacts if the state follows through on the Department of Transportation’s proposal to charge motorists as a means of paying for improvements to I-79 in the vicinity of the Bridgeville interchange.

“PennDOT had proposed funding this project through a new public-private partnership, or P3 initiative, as they referred to it,” township manager Matthew Serakowski told commissioners during their March 29 informational and general affairs meeting. “This delivery model was for bridges in need of replacement, rehabilitation and consideration of other locations for such improvements.”

To pay for such projects, the idea is to pursue levying tolls “without using PennDOT’s current funding resources,” Serakowski said. “The funds of this mechanism would go directly back into those specific locations that would be tolled.”

Upper St. Clair staff members have been conferring with their counterparts from Bridgeville Borough and Collier Township, along with South Fayette Township, where the interchange is located.

“There’s a general agreement that tolling of the Bridgeville interchange would negatively impact our region and the Route 50 corridor,” Serakowski said. “This includes exacerbating current traffic congestion, impacting pedestrian safety, degradation of local roadways, negative impact on regional development, along with environmental impacts with the onset of additional traffic through the corridor.”

He noted Pennsylvania “already boasts one of the highest gasoline taxes in the nation, which is to be utilized for funding of infrastructure projects.”

A resolution for Upper St. Clair has been drafted, similar in wording to other municipalities that have taken such measures to express their opposition. Resolutions in Bridgeville and South Fayette both state their communities were “blindsided” by PennDOT’s original Feb. 23 announcement.

The project would cost between $120 million and $150 million, and also include widening the highway in the area of the bridge. Officials have suggested the tolls would be about $1 to $2.

“Tolling would entirely be electronic. It would be collected using EZ Pass or license plate billing,” Serakowski said, referencing mechanisms by which payments are tabulated on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other toll roads and bridges.

Bridgeville’s resolution contends “if these tolls are permitted to be imposed, many of the 87,000 motorists who use this roadway each day will find themselves using alternative routes, such as our local roadways.”

Route 50, for example, already is subject to periods of heavy congestion, especially at the single-lane bridges that carry vehicles to and from both sides of the borough. I-79’s two interchanges in Collier also face the possibility of heavier traffic, with motorists using them to avoid having to pay tolls.

The bridge at the interchange in South Fayette was built in 1965 and rehabilitated in 1998. PennDOT’s plans call for the latest improvement project, which includes highway widening, to start in 2023 at the earliest.

The proposal also has drawn opposition from elected officials at the state level and groups that support business interests, including the South West Communities Chamber of Commerce, which has its headquarters along Route 50 in Collier.

“While rehabbing aging bridges and reconfiguring the interchange is of importance and should not be overlooked,” chamber executive director Mandi Pryor said, “the plan failed to show any consideration of the current plans to alleviate the traffic-swamped roadways along Route 50 and Washington Pike/Avenue and would likely reverse the years of work local legislators have dedicated to fixing the region’s traffic problems.”

Event to benefit Ave Maria Academy draws participants from 50 states
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To help raise money for her children’s school, Ave Maria Academy mother Katie O’Keefe suggested a race as a fun, healthy activity.

The big question was: when?

“I thought, St. Patrick’s Day is the right day. My maiden name is Kelly. My last name is O’Keefe. So I thought, this is the right time for a race,” O’Keefe said.

And so she embarked on organizing the Shamrock Shuffle 5K Run/Walk to benefit Ave Maria, which has campuses at the former St. Thomas More School in Bethel Park and St. Bernard School in Mt. Lebanon.

Because of health considerations, the event featured smaller groups at various locations instead of everyone congregating at a single venue.

For example, fellow Ave Maria Academy mom Janelle D’Eramo invited a group to Ripepi Winery in Carroll Township, the family business where she serves as events manager.

That’s where Katie and husband Bernie, Upper St. Clair residents, took third-grade daughters Kelly and Elly, second-grader Bubba and young Joey, joining other runners and walkers on a recent warm, sunny Sunday afternoon.

Shamrock Shuffle venues, though, weren’t quite limited to relative proximity to the school. Katie came up with an idea to bolster event participation.

“What if we try to get someone in all 50 states,” she said.

And so efforts toward “Ave Maria Academy Runs Across America” began, with Katie getting plenty of assistance, particularly from her friend Natalie Podkul.

“She got a printout of a map and a highlighter, and we started highlighting every state and sharing it on social media. And we got all 50 states, plus three countries,” Katie said.

More than 750 people signed up to cover 5 kilometers at various paces, most of them wearing green T-shirts that were produced for the event.

“What’s really cool is we mailed all of their packets and their shirts, and we sent signs that say ‘AMA Runs’ and they wrote in their states,” Katie said. “So we have dozens of people posting on our Shamrock Shuffle page running in Alaska and New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

She thanks the event’s sponsors and donors, who covered the cost of the shirts and provided a variety of gifts and raffle items. Thanks to their generosity, 100% of the race’s proceeds, more than $20,000, can go toward supporting the school.

Donations also can be made through the Shamrock Shuffle website, runsignup.com/Race/PA/AnyCity/ShamrockShuffle5kRunWalkVR?fbclid=IwAR2ATBhoflNSBXTlCjTrkfY-ixgAbdqb_t8twkoWkyVzqPoIuB2t8SspeGg.

Priority projects for 2021 identified for Mt. Lebanon
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Mt. Lebanon Commission has identified a list of priority projects for 2021, and the selection process was far more involved than simply filling wish lists.

During the commission’s March 23 discussion session, the projects were announced as:

  • Continuing the municipal diversity, equity and inclusion initiative;
  • Developing a master plan for Mt. Lebanon parks and conducting a feasibility study for the recreation center;
  • Redesigning the municipal website;
  • Restructuring municipal advisory boards;
  • Advancing the first phase of the Vibrant Uptown improvement project in the Washington Road business district;
  • Amending the overnight parking section of the municipal code and implementing the changes.

Consulting firm Strategic Solutions LLC, based in Mt. Lebanon, worked with municipal officials to prioritize and make choices, primarily during a six-hour workshop meeting via Zoom in February.

“The goal was to narrow down the long list of projects that were identified by department heads, as well as commissioners, to five,” said John Trant, Strategic Solutions founder and president. “We ended up with six, so we’ll call that close enough.”

He said the procedure entailed both scientific and subjective elements.

“We wanted to make sure we had a deliberate process for evaluating each of the projects from a purely analytical standpoint,” he said, plus taking into consideration “the capacity that Mt. Lebanon has and of the priorities of the community. So there’s an art to it, as well, in the sense of standing back and taking a look at the list. We did that at the beginning, and we did that at the end.”

The analytical component involved a weighted point system by which commissioners came up with a list of projects that ranked the highest.

“We had a further discussion on what each of those top 10 projects were and whether they were implementable this year or next year, if they had the highest community impact, if it made sense for those projects to rank in the top,” said Chelsea Puff, Strategic Solutions project manager.

The discussion resulted in some shuffling of the rankings, with some projects falling out of the six that were selected. Coming up slightly short are developing an environmental sustainability and climate action plan, completing a comprehensive streets policy, conducting an operational review of the recreation department and pursuing certification in the EcoDistricts program, a comprehensive framework to guide urban and community development.

“The goal is that those projects will be part of the list to start this process next year,” Trant said.

Considerations with regard to this year’s projects included the potential impact on municipal staff members.

“There was a very thoughtful process, particularly from the management team at Mt. Lebanon, to be deliberative about identifying what is our capacity in terms of planning for the project,” Trant said. “None of these projects is ready to just flip a switch and say go. All of them are going to require some preimplementation staffing resources.

“We also recognized that once a project is complete, most often that project isn’t static,” he continued. “There is likely going to be needing of additional capacity beyond implementation to ensure the sustainability and the viability of that project moving forward for the municipality.”