SOMERSET, Pa. — Anyone driving on U.S. Route 219 south of Somerset likely will see and maybe hear some long-awaited activity, a step toward a new four-lane highway.
In an announcement late Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, said two contractors have started cutting down 250 acres of trees on the right of way of the new alignment for the long-awaited highway between Somerset and Meyersdale.
“I think this is the greatest news in Somerset County in 40 years,” said County Commissioner John Vatavuk. “This leg of Route 219 was the campaign issue I ran on in 2007.”
Timing on the cutting of the trees is paramount because they have to be felled by the end of March, when the Indiana bat comes out of underground hibernation to nest, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Tribune-Democrat.
The bat is protected as a federal endangered species.
Getting the trees on the ground will take place over the next six weeks. Turning them into lumber then can begin, according to a release from Shuster’s office.
A delay in the cutting likely would have postponed bid-letting for construction of the project until next year, officials said Thursday.
K.W. Reese Inc. of Mercersburg and Beeghly Tree Service LLC of Somerset have been awarded contracts for the tree removal.
“This project has been a long time in the making and it’s great to see it finally getting off the ground,” Shuster said in a statement. “Completing Route 219 has long been one of my highest priorities in Congress.”
The $300 million project was long held up by a lack of state money.
Because the highway is part of the congressionally designated Appalachian Highway Development System, 80 percent of the money was available. Stopping the project was the 20 percent state share.
Shuster and others were able to have the language in MAP-21, the federal highway legislation adopted last year, changed to allow the project to be funded 100 percent using AHDS money.
PennDOT District 9 executive Tom Prestash was elated with news of the timbering.
“This is a monumental step for us,” he said. “This is obviously a step in the right direction.”
PennDOT still is waiting for a federal permit and two permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection before bids can be let, a process Prestash hopes to see in the spring.