An official announcement is said to be coming Friday or Saturday, but speaking to the Daily Times Thursday afternoon, Ohio Department of Transportation District 9 spokeswoman Kathleen Fuller said ODOT tentatively plans a ribbon-cutting for the long talked about Veterans Memorial Highway, or State Route 823, on Dec. 13.
While Fuller said the ribbon-cutting will happen, she also admitted ODOT has not set an exact date for the opening of what was long known as the Portsmouth Bypass. She did say the roadway will reach “substantial completion” by Dec. 14 as required in the agreements with the private contractor building the highway.
Fuller was quick to add the new highway will not open the day of the ribbon-cutting. She did not give a time for that ceremony but stated by the time barricades and such are removed following the ceremony, she did not have confidence the roadway could be opened before dark. For safety reasons, Fuller said officials do not want drivers cruising along an unfamiliar road at night.
Despite some strong rumors to the contrary, some of which reached the offices of the Daily Times from credible sources, Fuller for at least the second time denied the highway will see only a partial opening this year. She said when the highway opens, all four lanes will be ready for traffic moving 70 mph all along the route.
Stretching 16 miles and connecting U.S. 52 to U.S. 23 north of Lucasville, the $634 million project has been advertised as the largest piece of earthwork ever undertaken in the state.
Furthermore, and perhaps more notably, the bypass is the first ever public/private road enterprise built in Ohio. On Thursday, Fuller said the next big step in the highway project is for roadway builders the Portsmouth Gateway Group to turn the freeway over to ODOT. At that point, she said officials will begin to “cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s” on the complicated and presumably plentiful paperwork connected with the project. Officials also will inspect the highway to ensure it is ready for traffic.
Even when the bypass is completed, the Gateway Group will, for 35 years, be responsible for the upkeep of the road. They will be paid what Fuller called annual “availability payments” as long as the highway remains in good condition. ODOT only will be responsible for removal of ice and snow.
Those “availability payments” will consist of state and federal funds, Fuller said. She reiterated what she described as a decision made early in the planning for the project, namely that the new highway will not be a toll road.
In the past, Fuller has said if the state had decided to build the project using traditional funding methods, it most likely would have been built in phases stretching over 15 to 25 years. The unique funding mechanism used cut construction time to three-and-a-half years, she claimed.
According to the District 9 website, the project required removal of 20 million cubic yards of dirt. As of March, Fuller reported the earthwork was 100 percent complete.
The bypass was first dreamed up in the early 1960s by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC.)
As part of the ARC’s mission, the S.R. 823 project was developed to end supposed isolation of certain areas and provide roadway connections believed to be needed to attract economic development and jobs not just in Ohio but also in neighboring West Virginia and Kentucky.
Again, according to the project website: “While providing improved transportation infrastructure to impoverished areas, the new route will serve to alleviate congestion, heighten safety and improve the movement of traffic through and around Portsmouth, where traffic on the primary arterial roadways of U.S. 23 and U.S. 52 is overburdened by steep grades, excessive curves, many intersections and numerous direct driveway accesses on the routes.”
Fuller said once the bypass project is complete, ODOT has no further big projects on the table at this time. She said there are no current plans to address any perceived congestion on U.S. 23 between Portsmouth and Columbus. She added District 9 previously took steps to relieve choke points on the roadway around Waverley and Piketon. She said officials believe the bypass addresses the biggest problems along U.S. 23.