NELSONVILLE — After more than 40 years of planning, portions of a major highway project are expected to begin opening this fall.
One stretch of the Nelsonville Bypass is scheduled to open this month, with the entire project set to be completed in October of next year.
The project involves U.S. 33, currently a two-lane road through town, which will become a four-lane wrap around — expected to ease traffic and improve safety. After decades of proposals and delays, the project finally became a state and federal priority in 2002. The U.S. 33 macro-corridor serves as the primary east-west route from Meigs County and surrounding areas to Columbus, Ohio.
U.S. 33 from Charleston, W.Va. to Columbus, Ohio is a major transportation route carrying more than 18,000 vehicles a day — more than 1,500 of which are commercial trucks.
According to Brenna Slavens, ODOT District 10 spokesperson, a section of the westbound lane from West Interchange Road to Logan could open as early as September 19 — weather permitting. The eastbound lane of the same section is scheduled to open by mid-October. Phase 2 is scheduled to open in late November.
So far, Phase 2 of the project remains well within budget. Slavens said the original contract amount was $45.2 million, but the current contract amount is $41.2 million.
Phase 3, which extends from Dorr Run to the existing Nelsonville exit, has seen even more significant cost savings.
“A lot of the original contract amount was allocated for mine grouting on Phase 3, but there wasn’t nearly as much of that to do as originally expected,” Slavens explained.
Phase 3 was estimated to cost nearly $93 million. The current contract amount is approximately $86.3 million. Phase 2 and 3 of the project have been funded by federal stimulus dollars. Phase 1 of the project, which was funded by the state, cost about $23 million.
Slavens said about $10 million of the overall project cost has been spent on environmental mitigation efforts, including wildlife crossings and fences, butterfly and amphibian crossings. Much of the bypass is being constructed within the boundaries of Wayne National Forest.
Initially, Nelsonville residents and business owners were concerned that the bypass might have a negative impact on the local economy — particularly since it will re-route traffic around such local attractions as Rocky Boots, Stuart’s Opera House and Nelsonville’s growing art district, the Historic Public Square. However, Paige Aloft, director of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau claims people are more optimistic now.
“Nelsonville is looking to become a stronger destination,” Aloft said. “I think they are looking to become the gateway to the Appalachian region and the gateway to Hocking Hills.”
Aloft said Nelsonville has been undergoing a revitalization for the past 10 years — partly in preparation for the bypass.
“Few communities have as much heart and soul and personality as they do in Nelsonville,” she said.
Meigs County Development Director, Perry Varnadoe, said he expects the completed bypass to have a positive impact on the entire southeastern Ohio region.
“Traffic counts are up on the sections that are done,” Varnadoe said. “It’s going to open the area to tourists and development.”
Varnadoe said there was a fear that the bypass would destroy the natural beauty of the region, but instead he believes it has made the area more accessible for viewing.
“We think it’s going to be a real boon for the area — in terms of traffic, safety and sightseeing,” Varnadoe said.