It took four decades of planning, but Friday, the Laurel Valley Transportation Improvement Project — an upgrade of the Route 981 corridor connecting the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s New Stanton interchange with Arnold Palmer Regional Airport — took its important first step as PennDOT officials and local, state and county leaders participated in the project’s groundbreaking.
The ceremonial groundbreaking was held on the Little League field in Norvelt at the northern end of the project’s first phase.
One of the first dignitaries to speak at the ceremony was Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, who recalled she was a county commissioner near the beginning of the planning process.
The day, Ward said, is proof positive of what can happen “when we all come together and work for the good of our communities.”
It’s importance can’t be overstated, according to Ward.
“It’s going to mean so much to our region. It’s going to mean so much to the economy and to the airport,” she said.
State Rep. Jason Silvis of the 55th District echoed Ward’s sentiments and said he’d like to see her on one of the first bulldozers.
“This actually proves we can all work together as a state and a country,” he said.
Although federal, state and local elected officials all had a hand in bringing this project to this point, many of the speakers had to credit not just those in attendance Friday, but the ones who came before them. Names such as the late state Rep. Mike Reese, who lobbied for the project passionately before his death last year, and former Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson.
Current Commissioner Sean Kertes said Anderson, his former boss, believed the project was vital to the region and seeing it become a reality was his “end goal.”
The initial phase heads north from Route 819 to Norvelt in Mount Pleasant Township and will turn west from the existing Route 981 alignment, beginning at a point north of the turnpike underpass. It will rejoin with the existing road just sough of the Waltons Lane intersection.
This 4.5-mile section is part of a three-phase plan to improve curves and intersections over a section between Route 819 and the airport in Unity Township that stretches a total of 11 1/2 miles.
The proposed two-lane road will gain an uniform lane width of 12 feet with 8-foot shoulders that will be wide enough to accommodate bike riders and pedestrians.
Together with the recently upgraded section of Route 981 between Route 30 and the airport, the completed Laurel Valley project represents an investment of more than $150 million, according to Bill Kovach, district executive for PennDOT District 12, which encompassed Westmoreland County.
“It’s a big investment in this community and the region,” said Kovach.
Other partners in the project, Kovach mentioned, were members of the community and residents along the corridor who helped shape the vision through various public outreach events held during the planning process.
Kovach said that Walsh Construction Co.’s work on the first section of the project will cost $55 million and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2024.
Preliminary design is underway on the two other phases of the project, including the central section between Norvelt and Route 130 in Unity Township to follow a portion of Route 2023, and the northern section, which will extend from Route 130 near the airport and the Westmoreland County Airpark.
The central portion has an estimated cost of between $35 million and $40 million, with construction not expected to begin before 2026. The northern section is expected to cost between $25 million and $30 million. Work is expected to begin in 2025.
The plans call for six roundabout intersections, including the one already in existence at the entrance to the airport. In the first phase, roundabouts will be built at routes 819 and 981, Hecla Road and State Street and Route 981. Also, there will be a roundabout at Mount Pleasant, Kecksburg and Hecla roads at Route 981, which all converge in Norvelt.
In addition, Kovach mentioned PennDOT is partnering with Mount Pleasant Area School District to develop landscaping at the Hecla Road-State Street roundabout to serve as a gateway to the school district’s high school and administrative complex.
PennDOT officials tout that the project will not only increase traffic safety and mobility, but also boost potential development in the communities it connects.
Visit laurelvalleyproject.com for project maps and additional information.