Tube City Almanac

January 29, 2009

MFX: Dep't. of Dead Horses

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

(Third in a series of ruminations on the Mon-Fayette Expressway.)

Editor's Note: I'm not "anti-highway." Longtime readers know that I love to drive.

I'm also not "anti-development." If Tube City Almanac has a bias, it's toward building more shiny, new things in the Mon Valley.

Finally: I'm just a simple country doctor reporter, not a moon-shuttle conductor statistician or civil engineer. My conclusions and comparisons may be completely inaccurate. Caveat emptor.

. . .

Before we get into this installment, I'd thought I'd point out a couple of comments from Monday's Almanac.

First, Andrea Boykowycz of PennFuture --- an outspoken opponent of the Mon-Fayette Expressway --- says my math is off. Based on current traffic levels along the Parkway East, I "guesstimated" that 60,000 to 70,000 vehicles might use the MFX in Allegheny County.

Andrea cites a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission report that says it's more like 50,000 vehicles a day. Also, she says that as of last March, the cost of completing the legs of the MFX north of Route 51 had climbed to $3.8 billion.

Naturally, that all makes the math behind the MFX considerably worse than I suggested.

. . .

Second, Alert Reader R.D. points out something obvious --- that areas in the Pittsburgh metro area that have the healthiest business districts --- like Monroeville, Cranberry and Robinson --- all have direct interstate highway access:

I was already working in Cranberry just a few weeks before the Parkway North opened. In addition to cutting my commute time significantly, the effect on local business, home construction and tax revenues was unbelievably dramatic.

By the time I left in 1995, development was completely out of control ... Would that we in the Mon Valley should have such problems.

. . .

It's impossible not to see a connection between the growth of Cranberry Township and the completion of I-279.

(We're very, very loosely measuring development in terms of population. A better measurement might be assessed property valuation, or property tax revenues, but those numbers aren't easy to come by or compare.)

The highway opened in 1989. According to the U.S. Census, Cranberry's population went from 11,066 in 1980 to 14,816 in 1990 to 23,625 in 2000.

Cranberry's boom actually starts before I-279, in the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1980 (the time period that I-79 was completed) Cranberry's population more than doubled, from 4,873 to 11,066.

The latest U.S. Census estimate puts the township's population at more than 27,000.

. . .

Highway access obviously helped make Cranberry more attractive for development.

If highway access is one of the main causes of development, then Ross Township should have experienced a similar population boom. It's also on I-279, and it's much closer to Pittsburgh.

But Ross's population has been generally flat since 1970 --- stuck at about 33,000.

(On the other hand, McCandless Township --- which isn't accessible from I-279, and must be reached via congested and dangerous Route 19 and "McKnightmare Road" --- went from about 22,000 people in 1970 to 29,000 in 2000.)

. . .

This all implies that something more complicated than "highway access" drove development of Cranberry.

Geography is one factor. Butler County's terrain is ideally suited for development. The county's landscape was formed by glaciers, not rivers. Cranberry is marked by rolling hills rather than the steep slopes that characterize the Mon Valley.

Another factor was the decline in agriculture in Pennsylvania after World War II, which left many farms available for development.

According to the Penn State Cooperative Extension, Butler County had 2,274 farms covering 215,101 acres in 1959. By 2001, it had 1,260 farms covering 127,500 acres.

All of that land was pristine and "shovel ready."

In Ross Township, the areas that were easy to develop were already "built up" by the 1960s, so growth was marginal or slower.

. . .

Even having vacant farm land and an interstate highway (or two!) is no guarantee of development. Let's look at Washington County, which sits at the junction of two cross-country interstates --- I-70 and I-79 --- and which is the home of Southpointe.

Interstate 70 in Pennsylvania was completed in 1968. Interstate 79 in Washington and Greene counties was complete by 1978.

At the same time, Washington County had a lot of farm land available for development. According to the Penn State Extension, active farms in Washington declined from 317,729 acres in 1959 to 200,000 in 2001.

The combination of vacant farm land and highways should have logically resulted in a major population boom for Washington County.

Instead, Washington County lost population --- from 217,000 to 205,000.

. . .

Let's focus on two specific Washington County communities that are similar to McKeesport in many ways.

The city of Washington was once a manufacturing hub and a corporate headquarters (Washington Steel and Jessop Steel).

Nearby Canonsburg was the home of Fort Pitt Bridge Works, Pennsylvania Transformer and other companies. Like McKeesport, both communities date to the late 18th century.

Washington has multiple exits on I-70 and I-79, but its population declined from 20,000 people in 1970 to 15,000 in 2000.

As for Canonsburg, despite its location directly on I-79 and its proximity to Southpointe, its population went from 11,000 people to 8,600.

. . .

Highway construction does not seem to lead directly to growth for urban communities like Canonsburg or Washington.

Indeed, if towns like Canonsburg and Washington are any indication, highways can't even keep existing people or businesses from leaving.

Other factors --- including land availability --- are just as important.

. . .

And the happy combination of factors that made Cranberry easy to develop just don't exist in the Mon-Yough area.

The Mon Valley lacks large tracts of flat, unused land (some parts of Elizabeth, Forward and Union townships might be the exceptions). Most of the buildable land is already occupied.

Of the vacant land available, it's mainly in old industrial sites that are contaminated with pollution, criss-crossed with utility lines, or partially blocked by active railroad tracks. These brownfields have serious liabilities and headaches.

If the competition for development is between "vacant farm land with highways" and "old urban communities with highways," local evidence suggests that communities with vacant farm land will probably win --- but as Washington County's history seems to indicate, that's not guaranteed, either.

. . .

It's true that the Mon-Fayette Expressway would definitely make it easier for existing residents and businesses to get to and from Pittsburgh and I-70.

Whether the cost ($158 million per mile) is worth that convenience is a philosophical question.

But it's difficult to make the argument for the MFX --- at least for the portion that would serve the Mon-Yough area --- on a purely economic basis.

Your Comments are Welcome!

I’ve only had time to briefly scan this excellent series, so forgive me if you’ve covered this — but to my mind, the growth of Cranberry is coming at the expense of the McKnight Road corridor.

Drive up and down McKnight and count the empty storefronts. It’s a significan percentage, and growing larger by the day.
Bob (URL) - January 30, 2009

What you’re suggesting is that highways only spread development around; they don’t attract new development.

Since we’ve had no net influx of people/consumers — in fact, our population of consumers has steadily dropped — that makes perfect sense.

To cite another example, Century III Mall has been in decline for 20 years, but it took a sharp turn for the worse when the Waterfront opened. There are only so many shopping dollars to go around.
Webmaster - January 30, 2009

We here in the DC area have similar problems, though no where near as bad (or apparent) as is the case in the ‘Burg region. The old maxim, “build it and they will come” has held true here for the past 50 years. All you have to do is look at the rush hour traffic on the major highways and interstates, where the back-ups begin 40 miles from downtown DC. People have traded gas money for home prices to the extent that we have folks living around Hagerstown, Martinsburg, and even Gettysburg commuting into the metro area.

Granted that DC has been somewhat insulated from the major recession due to the presence of the Federal Government. But we just got an economic report that says, among other things, that the condo market in this area is going to be essentially dead for 10 or more years. Housing prices have dropped 15% or more in the past 18 months in what had been one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. In addition, the number of home-buyers is going to drop. A couple of years ago there were 5 buyers for each house being sold. They predict that by 2020 there will be 2 sellers for each buyer, which means that home prices are not going to recover much.

The growing, and aging baby-boomers are a different retail cohort than the younger generations. They don’t buy as much “stuff”. They’re not buying and selling houses with resulting new furnishings and appliances, etc. They’re less apt to buy new cars as quickly.

In sum, the characteristics of the workforce and the employment base have much more to do with the state of growth and housing, not just proximity to interstates.

I’m of two minds about the Mon-Fay project. On the one hand, I think having a decent highway connection from the Parkway East down through the Mon Valley would be a good thing for just getting around. Banging down through Duquesne and Kennywood to the Rankin Bridge and Squirrel Hill is not much fun.

OTOH, as Jason has rightly pointed out, is the cost of doing a toll-way caliber project really worth the cost? How about improving Rt. 837, building a new bridge at Port Perry, and maybe going through the hill on the Wilmerding side? Better yet, let’s get some new major employment into the region so folks will have some reason to either stay or come here.

ebtnut - January 30, 2009

There are many, many alternatives to building the MFX that would deliver improved access to the Mon Valley — it’s mainly a question of building support for one or more of those projects and delivering pressure to the county to get behind them.

Just for the record, I’m no longer with PennFuture (though I and PF both remain outspoken opponents of the completion of the MFX).
Andrea Boykowycz - January 31, 2009

Why couldn’t the expressway be a 2-lane road with a speed limit of 40 mph? It would still be a nicer than all the stop-n-go one has to endure getting around here. It will drop the price significantly. Once that much is paid off from the tolls collected, then two more lanes can be built and the speed increased to 65?
Thee Dude - February 02, 2009

To comment on any story at Tube City Almanac, email, send a tweet to, visit our Facebook page, or write to Tube City Almanac, P.O. Box 94, McKeesport, PA 15134.