Last August, a coalition of government agencies, universities and private companies announced a collaboration to turn part of the old Volkswagen and Sony plant in Mount Pleasant into a transportation test track and free training facility for first responders.

Emergency training at the Pennsylvania Safety, Transportation and Research Track could begin before the end of the year using empty parking lots, and final construction plans are being developed for the test track and other facilities. The wide-ranging facility would be the only one like it in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions.

But if officials can get millions in additional funding, the coalition also has a broader plan: linking PennSTART with similar facilities at Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh to create a 39-mile “smart corridor.” The idea is to use the corridor as a real-life test bed for items developed at PennSTART, such as the latest update in smart traffic signals, road construction techniques and other innovations to benefit communities between the two facilities.

PennSTART officials talked about the corridor idea publicly for the first time last week in a panel discussion during the first in a series of Innovations in Mobility events sponsored by SAE International and interviews after the event. The agency, based in Cranberry, is an association of more than 128,000 engineers that sets engineering standards in a variety of industries related to transportation.

Stan Caldwell, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 Institute, said the idea for the smart corridor came from trying to augment the benefits of PennSTART for the region. The corridor includes urban, suburban and rural communities that range from poor, middle class and upper middle class with a variety of geographical features that should make it ideal for testing new products, Caldwell said.

“How do we go from the test track to the streets as quickly as possible?” he said at the event Thursday at Nova Place on Pittsburgh’s North Side. “The idea is that the corridor is built on top of what happens at PennSTART.

“This is where we can see how these ideas can be integrated into the real world.”

Caldwell noted that areas to the north, south and west of Pittsburgh have technology and development corridors, but many areas east of the city developed first and are ready for redevelopment now. That’s especially true in the Monongahela Valley, once home to a thriving steel industry.

Rendering of test track high-speed area at PennSTART. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation)

The corridor concept wasn’t selected last year for a $2 million planning grant under the federal stimulus program, but the coalition did receive a $2.5 million grant over five years from the Hillman Foundation. Caldwell said that money likely would be used to leverage other federal and foundation money to get the corridor concept started.

Although others on the panel described the corridor as more of a long-term project after PennSTART is well established, Caldwell said he believes some concepts developed there in the next year or two could be ready for use in local communities.

“That [corridor] is a microcosm of all types of American communities,” he said. “That’s what we like about this as a real-world testing area.”

As far as PennSTART itself, the facility should be ready for the first phase of construction early next year, followed by a 1.5-mile test track in 2025. Initial funding for the 80- to 100-acre facility is coming from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ($12 million) and the Pennsylvania Turnpike ($8 million).

The Regional Industrial Development Corp. owns the 350-acre site and is converting it from one huge production plant into an industrial park with dozens of tenants. The concept of the test track is something some of those tenants have pushed for, said Tim White, RIDC’s vice president of business development and strategy.

“I think the real value [of this project] is the convergence of all of these groups [government, private industry and academia],” he said. “Our innovations come from input from our tenants. They say this is something they need.”

Joseph W. Sutor, planning and design services manager for the turnpike, said the agency can test items at 25 miles an hour near its headquarters in Harrisburg, but it must travel to Arizona to test items such as cashless tolling gantries in a high-speed environment.

Mark Kopko, director of PennDOT’s Office of Transformational Technology, said PennSTART will be “almost creating a sandbox” where innovative ideas can be tested and developed. Government agencies, including the military and emergency services, will have first rights to use the facility, but private companies can lease time and space as they need it.

Kopko foresees a facility that can be adapted to test traffic signals, develop safer intersections for pedestrians, train emergency responders how to safely set up perimeters at traffic accidents or fires, test self-driving vehicles and train snowplow drivers. The site even has a railroad crossing that can be used for training.

“It’s the possibilities I’m looking at,” he said. “We want to make sure we can adapt to anything we see in Pennsylvania.”

Picking up on that idea, White added, “We want to create an environment where we continue to keep it fresh so it’s always the sandbox of the future.”

Rendering of roundabout at PennSTART. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation)
Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at