Nelsonville bypass set to open Tuesday after decades on and off the table

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

September 30, 2013

NELSONVILLE - It might seem like completion of the Nelsonville bypass has taken a long time since construction started at the end of 2007, but it's really been just a blip in time in the history of the project.

The bypass, scheduled to fully open to traffic Tuesday afternoon, has a history that goes back decades.

"New effort launched for Nelsonville bypass," read a headline in The Athens Messenger in 1988, 25 years ago. Note the word "new." The article announced a renewed effort by area economic development and business groups to lobby for the bypass after earlier efforts did not come to fruition.

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, the project had been construction-ready in the 1970s, but an oil and gas embargo limited funding and stalled the project.

Supporters of the bypass saw it as a key part of a decades-long effort to improve U.S. 33 between Columbus and Pomeroy. A 1967 editorial in The Athens Messenger warned that while progress was being made on four-lane projects on other parts of U.S. 33, "the lack of a bypass at Nelsonville will become a significant and dangerous bottleneck in an otherwise fine highway from Columbus to Athens."

Then in 1993, the Ohio Department of Transportation announced that the Nelsonville bypass project was back on ODOT's planning schedule and that a consultant would be hired to conduct a location study, expected to be a lengthy process.

Although the project has been construction-ready in the 1970s, that did not mean that ODOT could just dust off the those plans. At the time, John Dowler, then-deputy director of ODOT District 10, explained that little of the original plans could be used because more stringent environmental and historical requirements were now in place.

While planning of the Nelsonville bypass was underway, other U.S. 33 projects moved to construction, including the Athens-to-Darwin Super 2 highway and the Lancaster bypass.

There was much debate about the location of the Nelsonville bypass, with several routes considered. In 2004, ODOT announced its preferred route north of Nelsonville and planning continued.

Because much of the bypass would go through the Wayne National Forest, special consideration had to be given to protection of wildlife, including some endangered species. Planning also had to deal with the underground mining that had taken place many decades ago along the bypass route.

"In December 2006, the district proposed selling a small portion in the middle of the two-phase project to get our foot in the door and Phase One (Dorr Run) was born," current District 10 Deputy Director Steve Williams has said. What was once a two-phase project had become a three-phase project.

By 2007, the first phase of the bypass was ready to go to construction. In September of that year, a $21.5 million contract was awarded to Kokosing Construction of Fredericktown. The first phase was mainly excavation, and it was estimated that 3.5 million cubic yards of dirt would be moved.

ODOT continued planning work on the remainder of the bypass, although it was unclear when construction money would become available.

In 2009, the project got a shot in the arm when then-Gov. Ted Strickland released a list of highway projects to be funded by Ohio with federal stimulus money. A total of $150 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was earmarked for construction of the final two phases of the bypass, advancing the timeline for completion of the project by several years.

In August of 2009, a $92.88 million construction contract was awarded to Beaver Excavating of Canton for the next phase of the bypass, followed less than a month later by a $45.2 millon construction contract to Kokosing for the final phase.

In recognition of Nelsonville's history as a maker of starbricks, a starbrick motif was incorporated in the concrete railings of several bridges in the second and third phases of the project.

"Bridges are one of the most visible infrastructures to a project and knowing the significance of the bypass and how it would impact the community, the decision was made to include a piece of the city itself," Williams has said.

In 2012, ODOT announced plans to build a roundabout at the Dorr Run end of the project, using cost savings from other parts of the bypass project. In the fall of 2012, the west end of the bypass, including the roundabout, opened to traffic a year ahead of schedule.

Construction of the bypass has not been without its issues. Contractors had to deal with weather delays, concrete had to be replaced on a state Route 691 bridge, some property owners claimed blasting damaged their property and filed lawsuits, the city asserted (and ODOT denied) that the bypass was a factor in flooding that occurred in Nelsonville during a heavy rain in 2012 and ODOT and Wayne National Forest officials are trying to resolve problems getting vegetation to grow in poor-quality soils along the bypass.

Nelsonville officials and business people, meanwhile, are looking at strategies to draw people off the highway and into Nelsonville, so that dollars don't bypass the town along with the cars and trucks.

But decades of lobbying by those wanting to improve the highway system of Southeastern Ohio, years of planning by ODOT and six years of construction will come to fruition when the bypass fully opens to traffic on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

The westbound lanes are expected to open at around noon after a ceremony marking the opening of the highway, and the eastbound lanes will open at about 3 p.m., according to ODOT District 10 spokesman David Rose. However, traffic will be restricted to two lanes at the Elm Rock Road overpass southeast of Nelsonville while workers finish the final transition from the old roadway.