“I’ll believe it when I see it” is a common refrain among Somerset County residents when talking about a finished Route 219.
Today skeptics will see tangible evidence as crews begin cutting down trees along the route for the four-lane highway from Somerset to Meyersdale.
“This is the greatest day for Somerset County in a long, long time,” county Commissioner John Vatavuk said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, made the announcement Thursday afternoon.
“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 press release. “Completing Route 219 has long been one of my highest priorities in Congress. This critical north-south route will open the door to greater economic development and a higher standard of living for everyone in central Pennsylvania.”
Crews from Beeghly Tree Service of Somerset and K.W. Reese Inc. of Mercersburg will begin cutting trees today.
Vatavuk said he was happy to see a local company get a contract for Route 219 work.
“I think it’s a great thing to have a Somerset County company doing the tree cutting,” he said. “I am extremely pleased a Somerset County contractor got the job.”
Beeghly Tree Service partner Ryan Beeghly said the company is excited to be given the opportunity to work on a project with such importance in Somerset County.
“It’s exciting to see the road receive everybody’s blessing,” he said.
As a Somerset County native, he understands the importance of the project, which has been decades in the making.
“It’s been a long time coming and will be very, very good for the area,” he said. “We are glad to be taking part in it.”
Beeghly said the company received an invitation to bid in mid-December. The bid was accepted in January. They found out while they were in New Jersey helping with the Hurricane Sandy cleanup.
Beeghly said the crews will target areas that include wetlands and other environmental concerns first before bringing in all of their equipment.
“We are very cognizant and want to be respectful to all of the sensitive areas,” he said.
Beeghly expects to be in full swing next week. He said as many as eight other people will be working at the site with him.
“As a local business, we really welcome the opportunity to be a part of this,” he said.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District Executive Tom Prestash said about 250 acres of timber need to be cut. The tree clearing must be completed by March 31 as part of the coordination for the federally protected Indiana bat, which is considered an endangered species. The bats hibernate from November until March. If the trees are down before they return from hibernation, they will be able to adapt to their new surroundings.
“Things are going well,” he said. “We are making progress.”
The project is being funded through a reserve associated with completing the Appalachian Highway Development System and will not use any state funds. Before the most recent transportation reauthorization bill passed last year, the state would have been required to fund 20 percent of the project.
“The planning associated with this project has been a collaborative process that involved the hard work and persistence of many local leaders,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a press release.
Construction of the 11-mile roadway is set to begin this summer.
Somerset County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ron Aldom was thrilled when he was told the news Thursday.
“Everybody needed to see that first thing,” he said. “This is the first part of the project starting to happen. The reality of it is now there.”
Vatavuk said the tree removal process will have a connection to another Somerset County project. Vatavuk is working with the contractors to obtain lumber for use on the USS Somerset.
“This really ties everything together,” he said.
Officials said the project should be completed in about five years.