If the coming holiday season will have you literally traveling over the river and through the woods — even if it’s only to the mall you go — you may want to spend a few minutes planning your route before you leave home.
Inside the city limits, traffic on Interstate 70 is not moving smoothly now, particularly around a massive construction project near the Fort Henry Bridge. Adding Thanksgiving and Christmas travelers to the regular highway mix isn’t going to make things any easier, according to the West Virginia Division of Highways.
“We ask that people pay attention to the signs, to traffic backups,” said Joe Juszczak, engineer for DOH District 6. “Stay off the cell phones and just be alert.”
THE TROUBLE SPOT
The big picture is truly big. State DOH is in the beginning stages of a three-year, $215 million project that will impact 26 bridges on West Virginia’s small share of I-70.
The 2019 holiday season will zoom in on one key portion — the beginning stages of an 18-month replacement of the bridge over the Ohio River’s backchannel and a second bridge on the Ohio side of the river.
Right now, both eastbound and westbound traffic is already down to one lane between the Wheeling Tunnels and the Ohio state line. By mid-November, Juszczak said a crossover will funnel both directions of traffic onto what is normally the eastbound side of the highway.
Exits to Wheeling Island will remain open throughout the project for in-city traffic — a necessity at the moment as the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is also closed to traffic — but he urges local motorists to plan before hitting the road.
If the destination is the Ohio Valley Mall, for example, the I-470 bypass is a better choice than I-70, Juszczak said.
THE LONG HAUL
Ironically, the looming holiday season and longer-term concerns about traffic flow are behind still more recent lane closures along I-70, he noted.
East of the Elm Grove neighborhood exit, he said, recent closures have allowed crews to prepare crossovers that will be needed for later stages of the overall bridge project.
“This is a very big project,” he said of both scope and timing. “Wheeling has some real challenges — the Oglebay light show, the businesses on the island.”
The DOH has plotted out a construction timeline that will cause the least disruption to key events and locations, he said. Part of that has been getting as much of I-70 open to its full two lanes before the holiday travel crush.
Lane restrictions caused by the crossover prep should be done by mid-November, well ahead of Thanksgiving, he said. Additional lane closures connected to ongoing underground coal mining at the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border are also done — at least until May.
Keeping the bridge project moving also means working through the winter, Juszczak added. This winter, crews will work on demolition and steel replacement, which are not temperature-dependent.
BUSY ALL OVER
“Ninety percent of what is happening is within the city of Wheeling,” said Philip Stahl, spokesman for the Wheeling Police Department, of the project.
Indeed, 24 of the 26 bridges included in the project lie in that department’s jurisdiction, between the West Virginia/Ohio state line and just east of the Elm Grove neighborhood exit.
And so far, the department is linking that to somewhat of an uptick of traffic accidents — including one that caused two fatalities — along the interstate.
Stahl — noting traffic cones do not cause accidents by themselves — echoed DOH’s concerns about driver caution.
“The key ingredients (to not becoming an accident statistic) are to give yourself extra time, go a little bit slower and obey the posted speed limits in the construction areas,” Stahl said, noting drivers must stay off their cell phones. “Distracted driving is the major cause of crashes.”
He had another tip for savvy holiday trips, even the local ones.
“Keep your gas tank full,” he said, noting his department occasionally needs to assist visitors who do not do so when visiting the Oglebay Festival of Lights. “You never know when you’re going to get stuck in traffic.”
STILL TIME FOR FUN
“To a certain extent, people will always want to shop for Christmas,” said Joe Bell, spokesman for Cafaro Company, owner of the Ohio Valley Mall in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
So far, he said neither road construction nor the loss of 1,200 regional hospital jobs has had a significant effect on mall shopping patterns. He suspects that is because while some families are watching spending carefully, there is not the overall spending anxiety that comes from a widespread crisis such as the Great Recession of 2008-09.
“The true test (of the construction impact in particular) will be once the holiday season kicks in around Thanksgiving,” Bell said, noting the mall will be tracking parking lot traffic to get data. “People will do what they have to do to shop.”
Given the mall’s proximity to other shopping areas to the east — such as The Highlands in West Virginia and shopping areas in Pittsburgh — he speculated the construction may actually help the mall. Shoppers living west of the Fort Henry Bridge construction site may find it easier to stay on their side of the river.
Erikka Storch — who represents the Ohio Valley Mall, The Highlands and more than 650 regional businesses as president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce — is just hoping people will shop somewhere in the region.
“We have a lot of unique gifts that can be picked up,” she said of in-state choices ranging from big-box stores at The Highlands to small stores there and in the downtown Wheeling area.
Noting that trips to Pittsburgh also involve construction zones and heavy traffic, she said area residents have a chance to help local retailers through a difficult time while enjoying the season.
“And, while people are out, I hope they have a bite to eat, too,” Storch said. “The poor servers — I can’t even imagine what they’re going through (with the construction).”
• 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.