ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) kicked off its second-straight near-record construction season Thursday at the site of the Commons Mall Crossing road project where state and local government officials and private investors held a ceremonial ground breaking for the $10 million project which represents over a decade of planning.

The $10,328,829.65 construction project began March 6 and will include a new 1.67 mile connector roadway west of Mall road from the intersection of Mall  and Banfield roads, running west then north, reconstructing  .59 mile of existing Mall Ring Road, construction of a new bridge over I-70, then continuing north connecting to Phase 1 of the Commons Mall Crossing Road built by the Belmont County Transportation Improvement District in 2015 which connects to U.S. 40. The roadway width will generally be three lanes, with the middle lane being a two-way, left turn lane. The structure over I-70 will be a four-span, continuous steel girder bridge, 540 feet long, with two lanes and one eight-foot wide sidewalk. The word St. Clairsville will be placed on each side of the bridge and will be visible from I-70.

The contractor for the project is Shelly & Sands Inc. of Columbus and the completion date is expected to be October 31, 2018. During the construction, there will be brief, 15 minute duration closures of I-70 to set structural steel. One, 11 foot lane will be maintained in each direction on Mall Ring Road, however, sections of the road will be closed at various times for construction. Access will be maintained to all businesses throughout construction and all of Mall Ring Road will be open during the holiday season (Nov.15-Jan. 15).

Funding partners for the project include the Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) ($3,9 million in 2015), Belmont County TID ($1.1 million), Bel-O-Mar Regional Council ($1 million), the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, ($500,000) ODOT, a $3.5 million federal earmark in 2005, and private right-away donations by the Cafaro Company and Robert Stein.

"We made it," Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas said, noting that the process began 12 years ago. 

"To be here today is great for all of Belmont County. To see it come to fruition today is an absolute joy for me and many people," Thomas said. "This project as it stands today, when it is completed, is not a Richland Township/?St. Clairsville project. It is for all of Belmont County."

Thomas said infrastructure was always important and that the mall road project would improve safety and increase economic development. "This partnership," he said motioning behind him, "is a classic public/?private partnership that you’re starting to see more of these days, but this is a rare one." On behalf of the commissioners past and present, he thanked all those involved in the project since its inception.  He said the county has continued to have a great relationship with the Cafaro Company.

Cafaro Company Marketing Director Joe Bell said the fate of the retail industry is not as dire as it seems. He said although there have been changes to the stores at the Ohio Valley Mall, new businesses would continue to be introduced, but that shopping centers are evolving. He said the mall road project will "make the future of those businesses brighter and will enhance the possibilities for them and for all of the county. It’s going to cement this area as the center of commerce for Belmont County and the surrounding community."

Of the Mall Crossing project ODOT District 11 Deputy Director Lloyd MacAdam said, "It is a great joy to be finally talking about this project." He said six years ago he met with the three Belmont County Commissioners at the time about the project, which was earmarked in 2005 from then Congressman Bob Ney. "We worked strongly as ODOT to get this project completed. One of the things the commissioners were adamant about is they want this project because they needed this economic development opportunity and the ability to reduce congestion at this site."

"Here we are today," MacAdam said, noting there were a lot of hurdles to get over, the biggest of which was the federal highway hurdle in 2011 which approved the use of federal monies for the project.

"This project will relieve the congestion at the existing mall road intersections. Because of that it will also improve the safety of those same intersections, which is critical to the vitality of the people here in Belmont County," he said. "It will also increase the economic development opportunities in this area."

MacAdams called Dennis Bigler, former Belmont County TID Chairman and former St. Clairsville Service Director, "the champion of this project". Bigler said the project was a testament to the township, city, commissioners, Bel-O-Mar, state and federal government coming together to identify and advance a common goal. "It’s long been the top infrastructure project goal of the city and county governments, but its also been the top priority for Bel-O-Mar," he said.

"Public infrastructure guides and influences development. This is a high value road and warrants high value development. I think it’s critical to note that already over $20 million of private development has been built or is being built right now and is just getting started, and the road is just getting started," Bigler said. "The road is about more than development. It is first about safety and connectivity."

Jason Wilson Director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, said it was a great day in Belmont County. He said this project was an example of one that multiplies the government’s investment both publicly and privately, and was a good investment. "This project is an example of persistence," Wilson said.

Robert Stein, developer of St. Clair Commons, a senior living facility for which ground was broken in July, said it was an honor to have MacAdams and ODOT Director Jerry Wray there that day to celebrate the project with them. "It doesn’t happen much in life that so many smart, collaborative, big-hearted, persistent, patient people spend 13 years to create what we are now celebrating," Stein said. "Of all of the blessings that St. Clairsville and Belmont County have, the greatest blessing is the people that make projects like this happen."

"This project was a collaboration with a capital C," St Clairsville Mayor Terry Pugh said. "I just want to express the City of St. Clairsville’s appreciation for all the hard work, the planning, the financial commitments made, and now finally the construction of this major project." 

Those also attending included State Senator Frank Hoagland, Belmont County Commissioners J.P. Dutton and Josh Meyer, former commissioner Matt Coffland, Ashley Karlen representing U.S. Congressman Bill Johnson, April Gibson representing Lt. Governor Mary Taylor, former Belmont County Engineer Fred Bennett, current County Engineer Terry Lively, former St. Clairsville Mayor Robert Vincenzo, Belmont County Port Authority Director Larry Merry, as well as many ODOT District 11 employees.

"For most of the folks here, the interstate system is like rivers and mountains, it’s always been there," Wray said, predicting a major change in technology between vehicles and highways in the next 30 years. "We’re about to enter a period of transportation transformation that is going to change everything," he said. "The beauty of that for us, is that here in Ohio we’ve got the heart of it all. . .  We’re in the epicenter of what I believe will be changes in how we do things. and the changes that will take place, and the research that will take place in Ohio will roll out across the country and around the world and we will be a big part of it."

He said that in the meantime, the mission of ODOT will remain the same - to provide for the easy transportation of people and goods.  "To do that, we will take care of what we have. We will make our system better. We will improve safety. We will enhance capacity", he said noting that doing that has become ODOT’s primary focus.

Wray said going back through the decades from water to rail, to today, the people of Ohio have made a tremendous investment in transportation. "ODOT’s job is to protect that investment," he said.

 "Our transportation network is Ohio’s greatest man-made asset, and it is our duty to ensure it is in the best condition possible, he said "We have a lot of responsibility - 43,000 lane miles and 14,000 bridges. That’s why 93 cents of every dollar we’re spending on roads and bridges this year will go to preservation."  

Wray said over 16 billion dollars will have been invested in infrastructure over the course of Gov. John Kasich’s administration.

"A lot of people would look at that as an investment in concrete, asphalt and steel, or you could say it is an investment in the safety, the economy and the quality of life of the people of Ohio," Wray said.

This year, ODOT will invest $2.3 billion into the state’s roads and bridges, just shy of the record - $2.4 billion investments made in 2014 and 2015. This construction season will include 1,098 projects, 26 valued at more than $10 million. Workers will pave 6,945 miles of roadway – enough for a two-lane road from Seattle to Key West, and repair or replace 1,281 bridges. 

MacAdam said  this year’s construction program in District 11  is also significant. "We’re going to invest over $220 million. That’s 141 total projects in seven counties. We will resurface about 175 miles in 22 paving projects and repair or replace 49 different structures. There will be 50 safety improvement projects, including 42 slide repairs worth nearly $74 million," he said.

Wray said safety is always ODOT’s top priority, and this year’s construction program will include 191 projects aimed at making our roadways safer. Statewide, these projects range from reconfigured intersections to additional signage and signals. In District 11, these safety projects also include slide repairs – when added altogether equals 50 projects worth nearly $74 million. He said Ohio was awarded for its outstanding safety program as the best in the nation by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials a few years ago.

"We have seen an increase in the number of traffic deaths in Ohio over the last three years, and we are working hard to reverse this disturbing trend," Wray said.

Last year, there were 6,041 crashes in work zones resulting in 28 deaths, 186 serious injuries, and 810 minor injuries. The top cause of work zone crashes is following too close. Drivers need to pay extra attention and follow signs and directions in work zones to ensure the safety of workers and motorists.