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Pittsburgh's Southern Expressway - The Region's Last Free Highway

It's often overlooked in Pittsburgh, but for about a decade, there was a road-building renaissance in the region from about 1985 to 1992.  The construction of long-delayed freeways and the closing of some missing links in the highway network occurred during this span.  With the completion of the North Shore and East Street Valley Expressways, Interstate 279 was finished.  Crosstown Boulevard and the Veterans Bridge completed Interstate 579.  The PA 65 Freeway connected the North Shore to Ohio River Boulevard.

Finally, in the western outreaches of Allegheny County, another new freeway, known as the Southern Expressway, was completed quickly - just over two years - opened in time for the opening of Greater Pittsburgh International Airport's new midfield terminal.  

The Southern Expressway is a seven-and-a-half-mile new freeway that connected the Airport Parkway near Montour Run Road to the Beaver Valley Expressway near Flaugherty Run Road.  While providing direct access to the new airport terminal, the new highway created a seamless full freeway connection from Beaver County to Downtown Pittsburgh.  Gone were the traffic signals, backups, and dangerous cross-traffic turns along the Airport Parkway near the former airport terminal entrance.

The congestion around the old terminal entrance had long been an issue.  During the 1970s, plans were made to build a short bypass of the terminal resulting in a direct freeway connection between the Beaver Valley Expressway and the Airport Parkway.  However, like many Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania highway plans of the 1970s, they fell by the wayside.

Like the roads around it, the old Greater Pittsburgh International Terminal was growing obsolete.  Constructed in the 1950s and known for the grand entrance compass laid in terrazzo, the hub for USAir was cramped, crowded, and outdated.  State funding for the new terminal facility would come in the mid-1980s, and construction would begin in 1987.

There was one thing lacking with the new terminal - any highway connection.  The new terminal would be located to the immediate west of the existing terminal utilizing the existing runways.  As a result, access from the existing Airport Parkway and network could not be utilized.  A new highway connection would be needed and be ready for traffic when the new terminal opened.

The Southern Expressway (now Interstate 376) at the Pittsburgh International Airport Interchange.  PA Turnpike 576 - the Southern Beltway - would open in October 2006.  (Doug Kerr)

Enter the Southern Expressway.

Today, this road is now part of Interstate 376, an 85-mile behemoth running from the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Monroeville, through some tunnels and downtown Pittsburgh, past Pittsburgh International Airport, before turning northwards to Interstate 80 near Sharon.

The Southern Expressway was a rarity as it quickly went from funded to construction to eventual completion.  Initially added to the Pennsylvania highway budget in 1986, the highway would open to great fanfare just six short years later.

The Southern Expressway took advantage of prior planning for a new midfield terminal and road connections as four highway alternatives took shape.  Two of the four plans would only include a spur from the existing airport area highways to the new terminal.  The other two plans would build a new freeway south and west of the old airport highway and the new terminal.  Various upgrades to the existing road network would differentiate between those two alternatives.  The four alternatives were presented for selection in May 1989.

The four alternatives for the Southern Expressway Project.  Alternative 4 would be selected and construction would begin in November 1990. (1)

Alternative Four - which would see the construction of the new airport expressway and upgrade the existing PA 60 in Moon Township - was ultimately selected.  Key to the decision was the desire to build a full ring road system around the new airport, allowing for redundancy in case of construction, accidents, or traffic. (1)  Alternative Four included the construction of new interchanges along the existing Airport Parkway.  It resurrected the freeway bypass of the former terminal at Beers School Road; and over time, would expand/complete interchanges along the new freeway, plus adding additional lanes (up to four in each direction) on the new freeway.

The list of all planned Southern Expressway related construction projects. Most have been completed. (1)

To meet the deadline of having the new highway opened in parallel to the new midfield terminal, a scaled-down version of Alternate Four was built first.  The new highway would only have four lanes of travel (two in each direction), some interchanges were built incomplete (Moon-Clinton Road, Flaugherty Run Road), and finally, improvements to the existing Airport Parkway were not initially completed.  Groundbreaking for the new project occurred in August 1990. (2)

Construction took two years at a cost of $210 million.  The project's original funding was $73 million.  The Southern Expressway (now known as the Airport Expressway) opened to traffic shortly after Labor Day in September 1992. (3)  The new Midfield Terminal opened to air travel on October 1, 1992.  In almost a nod to the planning of a redundant highway network, numerous airport-bound travelers found themselves taking the new highway to get to the unopened airport.  Fortunately, connections at Flaugherty Run Road or the White Swan Interchange allowed those travelers to get to the old terminal for their flights. (4)

Over the next decade, many of the punch list items from the Alternative Four solution were completed.  An interchange along the old Airport Parkway for Hookstown Grade Road (signed for Ewin Road) opened in 1998.  The McLaughlin Interchange (International Drive) along the old Airport Parkway was completed in 2003.  The missing ramps at the Moon-Clinton Road Interchange along the new freeway (I-376 Exit 52 today) were added.  

Plans for the fully operational Flaugherty Run Road (top) and Moon-Clinton Road Interchanges.  The Flaugherty Run Road interchange most likely will not be fully completed.  The Moon-Clinton Road Interchange missing ramps opened in 2006 under a different design. (1)

However, other projects, including the completion of the Flaugherty Run Road Interchange, the old terminal entrance bypass, or the widening of the new freeway have yet to or never will occur.

The Southern Expressway Project remains the last non-tolled expressway to open in the Pittsburgh Area.  The speed, driven by necessity, in which it opened is often overlooked as you rush along at 65 miles an hour to get to the airport in time to catch your next flight.

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