Southern Beltway scheduled to open Friday
ROBINSON TOWNSHIP — The Southern Beltway will open to traffic Friday, providing motorists in the South Fayette area with a faster route to Pittsburgh International Airport.
But on Saturday, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opened the roadway to cyclists, walkers and runners for a Community Day event.
To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “If you build it — and invite people to walk on it — they will come.”
And people did come, and it was glorious.
For four hours, the five-mile stretch of the new toll road from South Fayette Way to the McDonald/Midway exit was crowded with all sorts of modes of transportation other than cars and trucks: Bicycles, unicycles, tandem bikes, fat tire bikes, roller blades, roller skates, electric skate boards and scooters.
And feet. Runners and walkers — some pushing strollers, others walking dogs — shared the road between Pennsylvania Turnpike 576 exits 16 and 11.
Shellie Yeung of Upper St. Clair, who arrived before 9 a.m. with her husband, S.T. Yeung, with their bicycles to ride the road, called it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s going to be awesome. You see things differently, it’s a different perspective, instead of driving on the highway,” said Yeung, who often rides on the Panhandle, Montour, and Great Allegheny Passage trails. “We’re not going to miss this chance.”
Brenda Rupert and Barb Cobucci, both of North Strabane Township, have been riding bikes together for several years on the Panhandle and Montour trails, and have watched as the toll road — which spans above the trails — was constructed.
“We watched it being built from below on our rides, and when we found out it was going to be open, we were so excited about having a chance to ride on it,” said Rupert.
Like several others, the pair stopped at numerous spots along the way to take in scenic spots, including a breathtaking view of McDonald and beautiful autumn foliage.
Many of the cyclists and walkers also snapped selfies and photos along the road, and shot video of their trek.
Matthew and the Rev. Ashley Steele of Imperial brought their sons, Theo, 9, Elliot, 7, and Spencer, 3, and bicycled the entire 10-mile out-and-back course.
“This is a big day for our family. We’ve been watching the construction for quite some time, and we were eager to see it from a different perspective. This is going to be a different vantage point to see the highway,” said Ashley Steele.
The Turnpike Commission set up tents along the course, where employees handed out bottled water, answered questions and offered information and fun facts — for example, the 13-mile beltway includes asphalt that is equivalent to 168 football fields.
The Southern Beltway, which will take traffic from Interstate 79 near Southpointe to the Findlay Connector at U.S. Route 22 in Robinson Township, has been several decades in the making and cost an estimated $900 million.
Joked Bob Miller of Imperial, who rode the thoroughfare with his wife, Bonnie, “It cost $900 million, let’s see what it looks like. We ride the Panhandle Trail and thought, ‘let’s come try this out.'”
The five-mile stretch includes one of three toll points that are included on the beltway, which will have an open-road tolling system that uses overhead gantries equipped with scanners and camera to electronically charge toll road customers either via E-ZPass accounts or the PA Toll By Plate program.
One bicyclist jokingly asked a group of fellow riders, “Well ladies and gentlemen, did you bring your E-ZPass?”
For one group of cyclists, buddies who ride twice a week (including weekend rides of about 50 miles), the experience was unlike any they’ve had.
“It’s wild when you pass a speed limit sign that says ‘Speed Limit 70,'” said Mike Walsh of Bethel Park as the group discussed jumping onto the Panhandle Trail to continue their ride.
Added Steve Ross of Upper St. Clair, “We got to see views we’ve never seen before of places we have been to a lot, and that was cool. It was smooth and quiet, and there was wide open space on either side. It was unforgettable.”