2016 seen for start of new bridge

STEUBENVILLE – Officials lobbying for the construction of a new Ohio River bridge between an area south of Wellsburg and Brilliant are optimistic work on the span can begin in 2016.

John Brown, executive director of the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission, said West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox advised him and other local officials the acquisition of rights of way for the proposed span could start in 2016.

Brown, Wellsburg Mayor Sue Simonetti, Wellsburg City Manager Mark Henne, state Senators Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, and Robert “Rocky” Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling; and Del. Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, met with Mattox in Charleston on May 20 to discuss the project’s status.

Henne said the bridge is one of three major projects being considered for P3 funding, or funds secured through a public-private partnership.

Brown said the other two are the development of the King Coal Expressway from Williamstown to Bluefield; and the U.S. Route 35 Corridor, a 35-mile four-lane highway through Mason and Putnam counties to Interstate Route 64.

Brown said P3 funding isn’t new and has been adopted in other states to pursue infrastructure projects for which public funds aren’t currently available.

He noted recently the Ohio Department of Transportation made plans to seek private funding for the development of the second phase of downtown Cleveland’s second innerbelt bridge project. Plans call for ODOT to repay the private party with money collected over time through the gas tax.

Simonetti said state highway officials are optimistic the cost for the estimated $120 million span could be repaid in 10 years following its completion.

She noted the next step for the project is an agreement between state highway officials in West Virginia and Ohio involving funding for the project.

It’s been suggested Ohio is likely to contribute 25 percent of the cost because much of the Ohio River lies in West Virginia.

Bill Murray, WVDOT’s liaison with BHJ, said HDR Engineering of Weirton, which has been chosen to provide preliminary designs for the span, has submitted several deck-width scenarios.

All involve three lanes because the number is seen as a cost savings and as most suited for the level of traffic the bridge is expected to serve, he said.

Murray said the scenarios will be considered by both WVDOT and ODOT and, pending their approval of one, officials hope to have preliminary designs for the bridge by the fall.

Plans call for the contractor to complete structural designs for the span, taking into account the location, length and other predetermined aspects, after initial construction has begun.

Brown noted about $18 million was earmarked by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd for planning and initial construction for the proposed bridge.

He said the project hinges on continued funding through the Federal Highway Administration, however. He noted the level of federal funding for transportation projects has been hotly debated among Congress in recent years.

Kevin Burgess, a planning engineer with the West Virginia District of the Federal Highway Administration, said if Congress doesn’t approve a new highway funding bill, it may adopt a resolution maintaining the current level of funding until one is approved.

Marvin Six, assistant director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, asked if the bridge project would be hurt if future federal funding is cut.

Murray said it would force state highway officials to further prioritize projects.

BDC Executive Director Pat Ford asked what he and other local officials can do to ensure the project doesn’t die.

“The reason we got here is we did lobby,” Brown said. He noted two studies commissioned by BHJ, the recommendations of a committee of public officials and community members, a series of public hearings and repeat visits to Washington, D.C. and Charleston led to the project getting this far.