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The Relief Route That Wasn't: The Never Built I-70 Bypass in the Mid-Mon Valley

In June 1963, a small blurb in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette read that The Westmoreland Engineering Company was awarded a $24,060 bid to study the proposed construction of Interstate 70 in Westmoreland and Washington Counties.  The study was to see what the construction and right-of-way costs "...to modernize the existing highway to Interstate requirements within eight months." (1)  This small, non-attributed, three-paragraph article came less than a decade after the completion of a four-lane highway that linked the Mid-Mon Valley to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This would be the start of a 15-year process to upgrade and improve Interstate 70 - a process that ultimately never produced a single foot of new highway.

This is the story, albeit brief, of the I-70 that never came about.

Background:
What is now known as Interstate 70 from Washington to New Stanton began as a connecting highway for the region to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Known as the "Express Highway", construction began in 1953 and was completed in segments throughout the decade with the highway being completed in 1960.  In the late 50s, a process would begin to eliminate existing at-grade intersections, add new interchanges, and reconfiguring others.  Finally, in 1964, a small at-grade portion of the highway was improved in New Stanton leading to a seamless connection to the Turnpike.  The highway began as an Alternate routing of PA71, and it would later be added to the Interstate Highway System.  The highway was first signed as Interstate 70S, and in 1963, its current designation as I-70.
 
As the Interstate System expanded, Interstate 70 would become a key route for trucks heading from the major ports and manufacturing hubs of the east to the west.  The narrow roadway - with its numerous exits to serve the many steel and manufacturing plants and communities within the valley - was quickly becoming overburdened.  The highway was out-of-date by the time it was completed in 1960.  The ramps, median, and right-of-way were built below the standards of the Pennsylvania Turnpike of nearly two decades earlier.  Many of the acceleration/deceleration ramps on what would become I-70 were less than 400' or ended at a stop sign.  The turnpike's minimum ramp acceleration/deceleration lane was 1200'.  The median was built at 4 feet compared to the turnpike's original grassy 10 feet median.  The turnpike was built with a 200-foot right of way vs. 80 feet for I-70. (2)  Many properties and businesses still sit less than 20 feet from the right lane of the highway.  In one instance (Exit 32B Westbound), a cemetery sits on a hillside less than 10 feet from the roadway. 

One of the biggest areas of concern was the Speers Bridge.  The Speers-Belle Vernon Bridge opened in 1957 as part of the new Express Highway.  The bridge replaced an older bridge that connected the two towns.  The bridge and the section of highway from the bridge east to Pricedale were known as a death trap.  The travel lanes of the Speers Bridge were paved with macadam and the bridge only had a six-inch wide, four-inch high median barrier that did nothing to deter cars from skidding and crossing into oncoming traffic. (3)  Between July 1966 and July 1967, 14 people lost their lives in accidents on the bridge. (3)  Another tragic period occurred over an 18-day period between December 1969 and January 1970, nine people lost their lives from accidents on the bridge or its approaches. (4)
 
By the late 1970s, Interstate 70 through Washington and Westmoreland Counties was falling apart.  In March 1978, the situation was bad enough that truckers shut down the Interstate protesting the number of potholes on the highway. (5) Patchwork improvements would be made to the road over the next decade; however, it wasn't until the late 80s and the early 90s that many parts of the highway saw some much-needed safety improvements. 
 
The Plan & Related Projects:

By the mid-1970s, plans were in place to replace and upgrade Interstate 70 with a new six-lane highway.  Known as the "Corridor Project" (6), much of the highway was planned to be widened with two additional lanes and more importantly, a new bypass of the congested and dangerous Speers-Belle Vernon bridge area would be included.  Heading from New Stanton, this new route would leave Interstate 70 to the south near the Arnold City (current Exit 44) Interchange.  It would then run southwesterly to cross the Monongahela River near Fayette City and Allenport.  It would then turn northwest back towards the present Interstate 70 near Lover. (current Exit 36).

I have a rather crude rough sketch of the planned route in the image below.


General Idea of the proposed Interstate 70 Mon Valley Relief Route from the 1970s.  A new bridge over the Monongahela River at Allenport/Fayette City would be included.  Could the wide median on PA 43 at the Elco Interchange have been built in anticipation of the 70 bypass?  That section of PA 43 was under construction at the same time.
Prior to this chosen alignment, it was uncertain where or how the new I-70 would cross the Monongahela River.  As late as 1973, three different alignments of the improved Interstate 70 were under consideration.  In addition to the Allenport/Fayette City bridge alignment, options included using the existing Speers-Belle Vernon Bridge or using the then-under-construction Donora-Monessen Bridge to the North. (7)  The decision on where the new I-70 would cross the river held up some of the design work on the, as it was known then, Mon Valley Expressway. (8)

In 1975, the construction of the new highway seemed to be just around the corner.  A Washington (PA) Observer-Reporter article stated that construction work on the five-year, $200 million project was to begin in 1977.  The first phase of the project - and was approved to move forward - was the widening of the existing I-70 from Arnold City east to New Stanton.  The improved highway would include six lanes and a 36-foot median.  The second phase would see the widening of I-70 from Lover west to Washington.  The final phase would be the relief route and the new bridge at Allenport/Fayette City.   The bypassed part of I-70 in the Speers-Belle Vernon area would become a state route for local traffic. (9)

Three years later in 1978, not a single shovel had been lifted for the new or improved highway.  Ideas for improving Interstate 70 were still being discussed.  However, many reasons including PennDOT's financial troubles would shelve it. (5)

The Donora-Monessen bridge would be completed in 1974 at a cost of $30 million.  Though it would not be used as part of the I-70 bypass route, plans were made to have the bridge directly connect Donora to Interstate 70 and also the Mon Valley Expressway.  The bridge would sit very sparingly used until the connection south to I-70 was completed in 1989.  The short 1.6-mile divided highway, known as the C. Vance DeiCas highway, linked the bridge at PA 906 to the PA 201/I-70 Interchange in Pricedale.  After over 15 years of promises, Donora finally had its link to the Interstate.  The connection to what is now the Mon-Fayette Expressway never came to be. 

What's Been Done Since:
Over 40 years later, plans for a new Interstate cutting through the Mid-Mon Valley have long been abandoned.  It wasn't until the late 80s and early 90s that many improvements were made to I-70.  Resurfacing and replacing the 'box-girder' median with a concrete barrier took place throughout the early 1990s.  The Speers Bridge and the highway from the Speers Interchange to the North Belle Vernon Interchanges were also rehabilitated in the early 1990s.  During the late 90s, a one-half mile section from North Belle Vernon to near Pricedale was completely rebuilt.  In this specific project, two bridges were rebuilt from the ground up and the median was increased to 10 feet.  At the same time, another improvement was made with the widening of the Smithton High-Level Bridge.  The nearly 50-year-old bridge was expanded to also include a 10-foot median. 

It would take another decade for significant changes to Interstate 70 would begin to be made.  Since 2010, piecemeal improvements have been made throughout the Interstate 70 corridor in the Mid-Mon Valley.  Many of these improvements include a total redesign of interchanges, total tear down and rebuild of bridges, and widening of the highway.  However, the widening is not the six lanes and 36-foot median proposed in 1975.  The widening allows for a ten-foot median, 12-foot travel lanes (but keeping the Interstate as a four-lane highway), and a paved 12-foot outside shoulder.  Many of the interchanges will now have longer acceleration and deceleration ramps eliminating the 'STOP' signs found today.  These improvements are scheduled to continue well into the 2020s.
 
The biggest change to the region's landscape was the completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway from US 40 in Brownsville to PA 51 in Large.  Completed from US 40 to I-70 in 1990 and then to PA 51 in 2002, the toll road's opening was the conclusion of a nearly 40-year struggle for highway improvements in the Mid-Mon Valley.  However, this one road is far from solving the region's transportation and economic problems.  The never-built Interstate 70 bypass and improvements are just one example.

As always, if you have any new or additional information on what would have been the Interstate 70 bypass, leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Site Navigation:
Sources & Links:

  • (1) "State Lets Job on Interstate 70."  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 13, 1963.
  • (2) Cupper, Dan.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History. 3rd ed.  Lancaster, PA: Applied Arts, 2003. 10-11.
  • (3) Walsh, Lawrence. "Death, Injury Ride Water-Washed I-70 Span." The Pittsburgh Press. August 5, 1967. 
  • (4) "Interstate 70 Kills Again." Washington Observer-Reporter. January 9, 1970.
  • (5) Grata, Joe. "PennDot Slate $4.5-Million I-70 Repaving."  The Pittsburgh Press. March 2, 1978.
  • (6) "Interstate 70 Council Topic." Washington Observer-Reporter. December 12, 1975. 
  • (7) "Decision on River Crossing of Relocated I-70 to Come Soon." Washington Observer- Reporter. July 26, 1973.
  • (8) Grata, Joe. "Mon Valley Expressway Starting."  The Pittsburgh Press. February 18, 1973.

  • (9) "I-70 Reconstruction to Start in 1977." Washington Observer-Reporter. September 8, 1975.
  • Interstate 70 @ PAHighways.com ---Jeff Kitsko
  • Interstate 70 @ Interstate-guide.com ---Alex Nitzman & Andy Field
  • Interstate 70 Improvements
  • Comments

    E T Williams 2 said…
    Is this blog post a re-post of something else?
    I see the same one here and one published in 2005?
    Adam said…
    This is an update of what I wrote on gribblenation in 2005. We discontinued the site in 2016. For some reason someone from South Africa picked up the domain name and kept the site up and changed my name to his.

    Hope that helps!
    E T Williams 2 said…
    Gotcha....Chip sent me the message you wrote to our blog email... it just looked weird, and was curious if someone stole and reposted on the other site, as that happens at times...
    E T Williams 2 said…
    But anyway, good information. I was always curious about why that 4 lane sprung up out of nowhere down to the Donora Bridge. Reminded me of the Rt 88 coming out of Lowhill , how it expanded for a mile and a half into 4 lanes.

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