Updated Mon, Nov 4, 2013 8:56 am
Opening the Nelsonville bypass eliminated a bottleneck on Route 33 that stymied a long-term goal of having all four-lane highway on what is the shortest route between the state capitals of Columbus, Ohio and Charleston, W.Va.
However, two Route 33 projects remain to be completed, and it's unlikely either will happen anytime soon.
Route 33 remains two-lane between Athens and Darwin, and at the Ravenswood Connector that links to the Ritchie Bridge over the Ohio River at Ravenswood, W.Va., where there is access to I-77 and Charleston.
While local officials say having Athens-to-Darwin and the Ravenswood Connector become four-lane remains a goal, they acknowledge it's not on the immediate horizon.
Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason used the words "very slim" to describe the chances the projects will be constructed anytime soon, given the limited amount of money the Ohio Department of Transportation has for major highway construction.
Eliason was a member of the Route 33 Corridor Committee, a group that lobbied the state for Route 33 projects. Steven Story, who co-chaired the committee, said the group has been inactive for several years — primarily because ODOT was making good progress with Route 33 projects. Those projects have included construction of the Lancaster and Nelsonville bypasses, building of the Rockspring Interchange and the construction of Athens-to-Darwin and the Ravenswood Connector as two-lane Super 2 highways.
"They (ODOT) have done a great job, there is no question about it," Story said. "For a small, rural area we've been very fortunate for the past 15 years."
Still, with the Nelsonville bypass open to traffic, it might be time to consider pursuing the two remaining four-lane projects, Story indicated.
"Maybe this would give us cause to reform the committee and go from there," he said.
Eliason and Perry Varnadoe, Meigs County economic development director, agreed that it would be traffic issues, rather than economic development considerations, that could convince ODOT to go forward with the projects.
"I'm not sure there is a strong correlation between four lanes and economic development," Eliason said. "I think it is mainly a safety consideration at this stage."
Drivers still face oncoming traffic on the two-lane roads, and the Super 2 highways still have at-grade intersections rather than interchanges, Eliason noted.
Story said the Route 33 Corridor Committee supported building Athens-to-Darwin and the Ravenswood Connector as Super 2 highways because it was a way to keep the projects moving forward when it was apparent funding wasn't going to be made available to do them as four-lane projects. The Athens-to-Darwin Super 2 highway cost $73 million to build and opened in 2004, while the construction cost of the Ravenswood Connector was $51.6 million and it opened in 2003.
Although two-lane highways were built, ODOT acquired enough right-of-way and did much of the environmental work needed for four-lane highways.
Whether the traffic and safety concerns on the two-lane sections will grow to the point of making the projects necessary in the eyes of ODOT remains to be seen.
"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," Eliason said, adding that he has seen an increase in truck traffic on Route 33 since the opening of the Lancaster and Nelsonville bypasses.
Debra Fought, planning and engineering administrator at ODOT District 10, said that a 2012 traffic count done on Athens-to-Darwin showed 5,500 vehicles per day using the highway. By way of comparison, the number was 14,000 on Route 50 at Coolville.
"We'll have to see what will happen with Nelsonville (bypass open)," Fought said, noting that ODOT will continue to monitor traffic counts.
However, Fought said the amount of traffic is not currently sufficient for the projects to be ranked high enough to get funded.
"Something has to drive the job for ODOT to make the commitment," Fought said. "It becomes a goal (to do the projects) if it becomes a viable solution to a problem."
She said projects across the state are competing for the limited dollars available for major highway projects.