By Steve Novotney
While the future of the Aetnaville Bridge has attracted the most attention from residents and media outlets in the Wheeling area, officials from the West Virginia Division of Highways also have offered updated information on several other local projects.
During a meeting two weeks ago organized by state Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons (D-1st), Wheeling and Ohio County officials met with a pair of DOH officials, Tom Badgett and Dan Sikora. Badgett and Sikora explained that three projects important to motorists traveling in Wheeling remain scheduled, but all three have been delayed for a series of reasons.
“Last winter hit our district hard,” said Sikora. “We experienced the worst winter in District 6 since 1977, and it took its toll on the equipment, our employees, our salt supplies, and our budget.
“We’re still behind on the district’s potholes, and funding is an issue,” he continued. “We’re not making excuses. Just stating facts. We’re going to move forward on the projects we have the funding for.”
A depleted workforce is also an issue in District 6, according to Badgett.
“We have lost a number of employees who have resigned for higher-paying jobs with the gas companies, and it’s been taking place for the past few years,” he said. “We’ve become the training ground for the industries. The gas and oil companies require two years of experience, so they work for us for two years at $10.80 an hour and then go to those companies and make $18.
“As far as the winter weather, the DOH has developed a plan to send employees from unaffected areas of the state to the districts that get hit the hardest.”
Funding, Badgett explained, is consistently an issue in District 6, and the promised cooperation from the gas and oil companies has been consistently tardy over the past year.
“I think the DOH needs dollars from the severance tax collected for the gas and oil industries because we have far more needs and concerns than we are budgeted to take care of,” he said. “And the gas companies help with funding and by doing projects on their own, but they are behind on both too.”
The DOH officials offered state, county, and city officials updates on the following upcoming projects:
- The paving of Main and Market streets in downtown Wheeling: Originally scheduled for the spring of 2014, these two roadways are now expected to be paved as early as the end of January 2015. Sikora explained that the delay resulted from adding sidewalk access at the involved intersections to comply with standards mandated by the American Disabilities Act, and this also added $1.1 million to the original projections. The project will now cost $2.6 million.
- The renovation and beautification of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge: Initially designated as only a “makeover” project, additional inspections of the historic span revealed structural issues that must be addressed. Sikora confirmed the beautification will represent a $600,000 expense, but the total cost is estimated at $8 million. The project, now scheduled to begin in October 2015, will close the bridge for at least a year. Once the work is completed, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge will reopen to vehicular traffic, and the two-ton weight limit will remain in place.
- Visibility along Interstate 70 and Interstate 470: Three separate projects are expected to take place in 2015 along I-70 from the Ohio state line to the Pennsylvania border and the lighting system along I-470. The start date is still undetermined, according to Sikora, but he did say all projects would cost at least $16 million.
- Bridge Systems east of Wheeling Tunnel: Badgett and Sikora acknowledged that these three bridges are inspected often because of concerns about the spans’ structural integrity. Sikora explained that while one or two of the spans may need completely replaced, it is possible one can be renovated instead of reconstructed. The DOH officials did not offer a firm start date or an estimated cost for this work, but Sikora did state the project could last as long as eight years.
Wheeling officials requested that DOH decision makers be mindful of the timing of each project to limit traffic congestion as much as possible.
“If too many of these are taking place at the same time, it would have a chilling effect in Wheeling,” said Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron. “In order to avoid that, we request as much communication of facts as possible.”