BENSBURG - Only 47 miles separate the two sections of Route 219 north and south of here where four-lane stretches of limited-access highway die.
But while efforts are now under way to improve both - one in Somerset County heading south to Maryland, the other near Carrolltown heading toward Interstate 80 - their individual chances of success may be worlds apart, local leaders say.
It's long been a source of frustration in both counties, where efforts to improve the highway have yielded little progress in recent years.
Mirror photo illustration by Patrick Waksmunski and Tom Worthington II
Extending Route 219 from Carrolltown has been a dream of area residents for decades.
Despite a $35 million shortfall stopping a 12-mile limited access highway link from Somerset Township to Maryland, local congressmen are hopeful they could get the first piece of the project to construction next year.
It would be a much tougher road for the northern project, which the region's leaders say faces a tough task to be added into the Appalachian Development Highway System - to even have a chance at seeing any construction.
Heading north: From Carrolltown to I-80 and beyond
This idea is generations-in-the-making.
As for the outlook, a recent presentation in Ebensburg by the multi-state Route 219 improvement group Continental One may paint the picture best.
Continental One has spent the last 20 years pushing for a four-lane Toronto-to-Miami trade corridor that primarily follows Route 219. It also has been a major supporter of the highway's northern Cambria County expansion over the years.
But when Continental One Executive Director Phil Scherer showed Ebensburg Borough Council the latest corridor alignment plan, there was a glaring omission.
The group's chosen path abandoned Route 219's Carrolltown and north path for one that took the highway to Ebensburg and then followed routes 22 and 119 back onto Route 219 in DuBois.
The decision was made this spring because the group's board members, some from this region, had given up hope that the four-lane highway would ever extend northward past Carrolltown.
While area officials are hopeful a local congressman's new effort to put the highway back on the map for four-lane funding will succeed, they concede there's likely a long road ahead to make it happen.
U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-12 District, wants the section of highway to be put back into the Appalachian Development Highway System - a designated network of roads that receive their own pool of federal funding for improvement projects.
"It's probably the only way it can happen," Cambria County President Commissioner P.J. Stevens said in an interview after Critz announced he was pushing a bill to add the Carrolltown-to-New York stretch of the road back into the system network.
The highway system has been in place since 1965, with its own source of funding to improve corridor highways.
But there are plenty of highway projects within the 13-state region that need funding, including portions of Route 219 itself, with a set amount of funding to do it with. And it has made the system's leaders and that region's legislators hesitant to add on new miles, Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Director Ed Silvetti said.
"It's going to take legislative action, and there are going to be some who might say, 'Hey, that's going to make it tougher to get my project done,'" Silvetti noted. "Each piece of the funding pie gets smaller if you add more miles."
Even U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Ninth District, whose district covers portions of both Cambria and Somerset counties, has stopped short of embracing the idea.
The current focus is on completing Route 219 from Somerset to Maryland - an effort Shuster considers one of his highest priorities, spokesman Jeff Urbanchuk said.
Heading south: Somerset to I-68 in Maryland
This project faces its own hurdles, but there's plenty of room for optimism, leaders say.
The lone roadblock: a $35 million state funding shortfall preventing the second phase of highway construction - connecting the Meyersdale bypass to the east-west Interstate 68 highway.
While the first phase of the $350 million effort connecting the existing four-lane highway near Somerset to the Meyersdale bypass 12 miles south is nearly ready for bids, it cannot proceed until the funding for the second phase is in place, state and county officials say.
Shuster, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Critz, as well as a list of other Congress members from western Pennsylvania, have been pushing to have federal "toll credits" again become usable as a state match for Appalachian Highway projects like Route 219.
Both Congressmen hoped an amendment could be pushed through by attaching it to a lesser House bill that would move more quickly through Washington, but it now appears that won't happen, Urbanchuk and Critz spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said.
The longer route: amending language in the federal Transportation Reauthorization Bill, which is revisited every six years and is currently due for updates.
Shuster has been pressing to do just that for more than a year, but prospects for the new bill's passage stalled months ago, Urbanchuk added, blaming White House politics.
Still, Shuster and Critz are "optimistic" it will happen next year after the fall election has passed.
"Both Republicans and Democrats from Pennsylvania are working on this, trying to make it happen," Mazonkey added. "We think it's just a matter of time."
Local officials and Route 219 supporters say the tie to I-68 would pay dividends well beyond Somerset County's border - into Cambria, Clearfield and other neighboring counties.
"It would have a tremendous impact," said Silvetti.
"It would be to the benefit of all of central Pennsylvania to get that built," added Scherer, telling area officials to do all they can to make it happen.
He said that segment - and a 24-mile section of Route 219 awaiting final funding in New York - are a significant chunk of the 235 miles remaining on the current Continental One corridor that are not yet four lanes.
That total was reduced this spring when Continental One members, a group of economic development leaders, business officials and other local leaders, decided to rely on a portion of routes 22 and 119 instead of Route 219 from Carrolltown to I-80.
Ebensburg officials questioned that logic after the recent presentation.
"It doesn't make sense. Nobody would take that route," Ebensburg Manager Dan Penatzer said.
But Continental One officials and area regional planners said at the time that the route was chosen as a compromise to keep most of the existing Route 219 highway in the region as part of the trade corridor, which, under another proposal, would have bypassed the I-68 to Ebensburg portion as well for an I-99 route.
It also came as local officials had conceded the highway's best chance for expansion from Carrolltown north was probably lost four years ago when PennDOT, strapped for highway cash, pulled the plug on studies for a four-lane route from its existing four-lane end in East Carroll Township to Cherry Tree, Indiana County.
The road ahead: Alternative options
State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, has pushed for Route 219 upgrades in his district for years and fought unsuccessfully to keep the project on PennDOT's 12-year plan.
He's been pushing ever since to improve north-south access from Carrolltown toward Mahaffey, Clearfield County, on a smaller scale.
His plan would make improvements to Sunset Road and near the Hastings Area Industrial Park north to Route 36, which is viewed as a more direct route to Mahaffey, where it also links with Route 219.
While there has been some very preliminary planning into that idea, there's no funding for it either, he noted, given that the current focus in Harrisburg has been on replacing the state's hundreds of failing bridges.
"At some point, that will change once new highway revenue sources are agreed upon," he said. "But for now, all we can do at the state level is keep any Route 219 improvements at PennDOT's forefront, keep people talking about it so it doesn't fall by the wayside."
"That project is near and dear to my heart. Hopefully, Critz's effort works to get the highway back into the Appalachian system," he added, saying he fully supports it. "But I'm going to push for anything that will improve traffic flow along that corridor - particularly between Carrolltown and Mahaffey, which is probably the biggest mess.
"Anything positive we can do along that corridor will make a difference."
Mirror Staff Writer David Hurst is at 946-7457.