A good map and a few country roads may soon be required to take Ohio County drivers home. Or, to work. Or, pretty much anywhere else.
The replacement of the westbound Fulton Bridge will entirely cut off a segment of Interstate 70 that many local drivers use to access downtown Wheeling, Wheeling Island and Ohio. Demolition will begin in February and construction will continue until the Oglebay Festival of Lights kicks in again in the fall.
“We get that any kind of construction is painful,” said Tony Clark, acting District 6 Engineer for the state Division of Highways. “(But) the bridges are in need of repair. At some point, we were going to need to address them.”
Clark said that need could have meant keeping the highway in nearly continual construction over many years. But, a new state initiative called Roads to Prosperity meant more than $215 million in funding was there to do it all in a three-year project.
“Once we’re done, we can, hopefully, walk away from it … and not need to deal with the bridges for years,” Clark said.
COUNTRY ROAD, ANYONE?
Between now and that point of completion — tentatively late 2022 or early 2023, according to Clark — Ohio County motorists will be driving around it. In preparation for this phase of the project, Google Maps has already grayed out Fulton Bridge, in fact.
Clark shared multiple suggestions as to how I-70 drivers who normally travel this bridge in order to go west can get from point A to point B.
• Through traffic to Ohio from Elm Grove or points farther east (such as Dallas Pike) should access I-470 W in Elm Grove to bypass the construction zone.
• Drivers heading to Ohio, downtown Wheeling or Wheeling Island from points west of Elm Grove (including such neighborhoods as Dimmeydale, Woodsdale and Fulton) have several options, including:
› Some through drivers to Ohio might choose to backtrack to hit I-470 W in Elm Grove.
› Other drivers may choose to take smaller city roads to access I-70 just west of the Wheeling Tunnels (the most logical route to Wheeling Island). This involves taking National Road west to the Mount Wood Overlook (Indian statue) area. From there, they can make their way down through Victorian Old Town to the Fort Henry Bridge access at the intersection of Main Street and I-70. (Note: This route may involve delays at rush hours as there is extensive construction on this side of the tunnels, as well.)
› Another alternative for these Ohio-bound drivers is to take National Road until it turns into Chapline Street, then drop south through the downtown to access U.S 250 S/W.Va. 2 S near the Ohio County Public Library. From there, drivers can proceed south of the city to pick up I-470 W into Ohio. (The last two choices can also be used to reach various parts of downtown.)
• Drivers from Elm Grove or points east who are headed to downtown or Wheeling Island can access National Road from I-70 (exiting at Washington Avenue or exit 2A/Oglebay Park). Then, follow the instructions above, depending on which location is intended.
• Drivers from south of the city will have the fewest changes. To avoid traffic delays, they should access I-470 W to get to Ohio. Those heading into downtown or to Wheeling Island can connect to those points from various exits along U.S. 250 N/W.Va. 2 N. Or, they can continue on U.S. 250 N and take it onto the small stretch of I-70 that will still connect this roadway to the westbound lanes of the Wheeling Tunnels.
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MAKING IT WORK
If those directions have drivers saying, “whew,” they have other entities watching even more carefully.
Philip Stahl, public information officer for Wheeling Police Department, said officials there have been strategizing how they will function in this new road order for some time.
That said, Stahl acknowledged, “I don’t think we’ll really know what the impact will be until it happens.” Until then, he urges that: “Everyone needs to be patient, go the speed limit and be aware of your surroundings.”
Both Stahl and DOH’s Clark said speed is particularly critical. From now until late 2022 or early 2023, speed limits will be much lower along nearly all of West Virginia’s stretch of I-70.
In some locations, such as around Fort Henry Bridge, the limit is now 35 mph. Other areas are running at 45 mph. Speed limits near the Pennsylvania border are changeable, Clark said, dropping whenever unrelated construction involving a long-term coal undermining project is required.
Stahl said police are “actively enforcing” the lowered speed limits. Officers have issued more than 450 tickets — most of them involving speed — on I-70 since construction began in the fall.
He believes their increased presence is working. After an uptick in accidents at the beginning of the project, motorists seem to have adjusted. “We’ve not really had major issues as far as traffic accidents,” he said of recent weeks.
That is something Clark said DOH workers and contractors certainly appreciate as the project proceeds. “Getting that speed under control was paramount,” to keeping both road workers and drivers safe, Clark said.
It’s not only the police and DOH who are watching the situation carefully. Late in 2019, businesses that need their workers to get to their downtown locations were also planning ahead.
Erikka Storch, president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, said then that that organization was already approaching businesses, suggesting such coping strategies as staggering shift times to avoid traffic jams.
Weelunk was not able to locate any businesses that were enacting sweeping changes, but Orrick Operations Manager Cortney Campbell was among those to acknowledge they will need to stay on top of how traffic is flowing.
“We appreciate this may be a challenging time for some of our employees,” Campbell said this week from Orrick, an international law firm that is one of the downtown’s largest employers. “We will work with our team members on any issues as they arise.”
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.