PORT MATILDA - Garden shears in hand, former U.S. Congressman E. ''Bud'' Shuster Monday cut the ribbon on the region's long-awaited Interstate 99.
''I'd be kidding you if I said this wasn't a big day for me,'' said Shuster, whose political career centered on bringing a major artery of the federal highway system through the heart of the 9th Congressional District.
Amid the honks of motorists whizzing along the northbound lanes, past and present politicians and government officials took to the podium before the large crowd huddled in the cold on the last remaining stretch of unopened I-99.
A truck travels in the southbound lane of Interstate 99 just north of the Route 322 West interchange. (Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler (left) and Congressman Bill Shuster applaud. (Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Former Congressman Bud Shuster (right) climbs over a concrete barrier before a ceremony Monday to open the southbound lane of Interstate 99 in Patton Township. (Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
No name was invoked with more praise and thanks than Shuster, who was joined by his son, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, and other family members on the highway named for him.
''With your help, we were able to get this done,'' said Bud Shuster, former chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, during his brief remarks.
Six years in the making, the nearly $631 million four-lane highway connecting I-99 at Bald Eagle in northern Blair County to Route 322 in Patton Township, Centre County, marks the last piece in building the interstate from Bedford to Interstate 80 at Bellefonte.
Bill Shuster joked that his father could now sleep well, knowing the highway was completed. He alluded to Penn State's weekend home win that stamped the football team's ticket to the Rose Bowl by saying, ''Without a doubt, the future of the region is a whole lot rosier."
Former state Department of Transportation Secretary Howard Yerusalim noted Bud Shuster's tenacity in making sure the project received the hundreds of millions of federal highway funds needed to complete the corridor and his reaction to once receiving word the project was going to cost $200 million more than originally planned.
''He said, 'Well, that's a challenge, but we'll make it happen,'' Yerusalim recounted Bud Shuster telling him.
Hobbled by the discovery of sulfate-producing pyrite at Skytop in 2003 and subsequent shutdown of construction the next year, the corridor between Bald Eagle and Patton Township has been ''a long haul,'' said state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona.
Geist thanked the 13-state Appalachian Regional Commission and the crucial federal dollars it provided for the project and pointed out I-99 is ''an economic engine'' linking Altoona, State College and Johnstown.
Geist, who was vocally critical of PennDOT and the state Department of Environmental Protection's handling of the acid rock cleanup that held up the road's completion, said the money spent will offer tremendous economic benefits to the area.
''It's a big investment that is going to pay big dividends,'' Geist said.
After the ceremony, Bud Shuster spoke about the lives saved by the construction of the interstate. As for the future of highway funding, he said the reauthorization of the highway bill from Congress was important, as was the need for additional revenues.
''The gas tax will have to be on the table,'' he said, adding that toll roads would also have to be considered.
Geist said with a $2 billion shortfall in state highway maintenance funds, there has to be other revenue options, such as tolling.
''You can't do it at the pump anymore,'' Geist said, referring to the state's gasoline tax.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7446.