A few hundred people, including plenty of local and state politicians, lots of veterans and presumably more than a few car enthusiasts, packed the Sunrise Church of Christ in Minford near the Scioto County Airport early Thursday afternoon.
Following some speech making and a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, most of those present became the first members of the public to drive down at least a stretch of the brand-new Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, a.k.a. SR 823, long informally dubbed the Portsmouth Bypass.
One official estimated the initial motorcade consisted of at least 110 vehicles, ranging from vintage cars to hot rods to several Minford School District buses, as well as various vehicles supplied by several veterans’ groups. As the motorcade began to make its way onto the new roadway, several observers concluded it consisted of far more than the estimated 110 vehicles.
In the area of trivia, what appeared to be a 1950s era Chevy became the first private vehicle to break down on the new highway. At least one or two hot rods became the first to leave skid marks on the roadway.
By the time you read this in the print the morning of Dec. 14, the 16-mile roadway may or may not be open to the public. Prior to the ribbon-cutting, Ohio Department of Transportation District 9 spokeswoman Kathleen Fuller said the highway would be open for general use by mid-morning Dec.14.
However, an ODOT driver, who shuttled all three Scioto County Commissioners along with several members of the media as part of that long initial motorcade, said it was his understanding workers would be out late the night of Dec. 13 removing any barricades from the road, allowing it to open with the first light Dec. 14.
“This is a great day,” declared Mike Crabtree, chairman of the Scioto County Commissioners and the first dignitary to speak inside the church. He added there has been talk of the bypass around Portsmouth for any number of years.
“It’s going to make my trips to Lowe’s about 30 minutes shorter,” Crabtree added jokingly.
More seriously, Crabtree declared ODOT and its contractors completed so much sprucing up around the highway, Lucasville doesn’t look like the same place. He talked about workers having painted curbs as well as completing lots of other similar projects.
Noting the highway is of course named “Veterans Memorial Highway,” Crabtree further talked about plans for a veteran’s memorial of some kind underway near the north end of the highway at U.S. 23. He indicated local veterans’ groups are funding and planning the project.
Next up after Crabtree was Jack Ford, senior vice president of Beaver Excavating Company, one of the lead contractors on the project. Ford thanked all the various companies who worked on the roadway but also went out of his way to thank the 450 employees who were, as he put it, “the people with the boots on the ground and the hardhats on.”
Ford noted in over three years of construction there were a grand total of two lost time accidents. He talked about the roadway cutting through 82 deep valleys, using up some 300-plus tons of asphalt and hundreds of miles of roads striping.
“I’ve done a lot of ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings,” said ODOT director Jerry Wray. He declared he’d never seen such a large crowd for the ribbon-cutting of a new roadway. He and others referred several times to the unique means used to build the highway.
As has been highly publicized, the freeway is the first ever public/private road enterprise in Ohio. Fuller has said if the state had decided to build the project on its own, it most likely would have been built in phases. In a press release given out during the ribbon-cutting, officials estimated the unique funding accelerated project delivery by at least eight years. Overall construction time was about three-and-a-half years.
“There’s going to be other projects like this around the state,” Wray said, but he added this will always be the first and probably will remain the largest.
Even with completion of the roadway, lead state contractor, the Portsmouth Gateway Group remains responsible for upkeep of the road for 35 years. They will receive what has been described as “availability payments” as long as the highway remains in good condition. ODOT only will be responsible for removal of ice and snow.
Connecting State Route 52 to State Route 23, the project has been advertised as the largest piece of earthwork ever undertaken in the state. According to the District 9 website, the project required removal of 20 million cubic yards of dirt.
To put that in perspective, the website claims if the dirt was piled up on a football field, the pile would reach two miles high. The state does note most of the material will be reused along the project route.
Information passed out during the Dec. 13 ribbon-cutting listed numerous other facts and figures about the new highway:
– the roadway completes the Appalachian Highway System in Ohio
– the work involved 190-foot deep excavations and 150-foot tall embankments
– the highway encompasses 22 bridges, including a 124-foot-tall span over the Little Scioto River
As Fuller has stated in the past, SR 823 was first discussed in the early 1960s by what was known as 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 needed to attract economic development and jobs. Indeed, local officials, including Scioto County Commissioners and the Southern Ohio Port Authority, long have spoken of trying to bring development to Minford and other locations along the highway.