Federal courthouse in Harrisburg clears congressional hurdle

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It took about eight seconds in a congressional committee meeting Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

“Mr. Chairman,” Congressman Lou Barletta (R-Pennsylvania) said, “I move that the 20 committee resolutions be approved in a block.”

“All those in favor, say aye. Those opposed, say no,” said Congressman Bill Shuster, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. There was no opposition. “The ayes have it.”

Because the ayes had it in Washington, Harrisburg may soon get it: a long-discussed $194-million federal courthouse on a vacant tract at Sixth and Reilly streets in Midtown.

“This means it’ll be built,” Barletta said by phone after the crucial 8-second exchange. “The project has been authorized by name, for a specific amount, through the authorizing committee, which has never happened before.”

But announcing that the federal government intended to trash the old, antiquated courthouse and erect a safer and securer one has happened before.

Several times, over several years.

In fact, the first gathering of political elite patting itself on the back over the Harrisburg courthouse included U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (deceased), Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed (two mayors removed), and Congressman Tim Holden (no longer in office).

“I don’t know that anyone had an expectation that it would take this long,” Harrisburg developer Ralph Vartan said.

Vartan’s been waiting for the feds to join the party, and waiting.

He built an eight-story retail and residential building in 14 months directly across the street from the courthouse site. He’s calls the courthouse a crucial anchor and he’s convinced once it is built, other developers will come.

“It’s like the big wave,” Vartan said. “It’s crucial for everybody else who wants to surf to know the timing of the wave.”

The timing is still uncertain for the projected 243,000 square-foot facility that will house up to eight courtrooms and have 43 parking spaces.

Yes, Congress has now authorized the project. But Congress has not yet appropriated the money for the project. It’ll have to go through the Appropriations Committee process, which doesn’t begin until early next year. Barletta calls that “a whole different animal.”

Vartan stops short of saying the whole project is taking entirely too long.

“This is the singular, major, federal project of our generation here in Harrisburg, so it’s hard for me to tell you what an appropriate schedule is because what’s to compare it to?” he said.

Many Midstaters are no doubt saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it!”

But one Midstate Congressman has faith.

“I’m confident it’s going to happen,” Barletta said.

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