Time for road is now

It might only be 47 miles of highway, but if it is ever completed, it likely will help to fuel dramatic economic growth in our region.

That’s the message that was delivered Tuesday during press opportunities held at Em-Media’s Bella Hall in Steubenville and the Coshocton Campus of the Central Ohio Technical College. The events offered members of the Columbus to Pittsburgh Corridor Association the chance to lay out their arguments that work needs to be finished on what would be a four-lane, limited access highway running between Pittsburgh and Columbus.

While it’s a project that has been discussed off and on for many years, the association and its supporters say it has become extremely critical if our region is to continue to grow.

Thanks to highway work that has been done during the past several decades, that project is closer to completion than many people might realize. In fact, according to the association, less than 30 percent of the corridor remains to be completed, the majority of which — 20.6 miles — sit in Harrison County. Smaller chunks remain in Tuscarawas County (15.3 miles), Coshocton County (7.6 miles) and Muskingum County (3.6 miles.)

Those projects would connect existing four-lane highways including U.S. Routes 22, 250 and 36, state Routes 161 and 16 and Interstate 270 just outside of Columbus.

It’s a plan that makes perfect sense on many levels. Just take a look at a map and you can see why. There’s no easy way to drive between Pittsburgh and Columbus, which those who live in the Tri-State Area already know have become major economic players not only in the region, but globally.

In order to make the entire trip from Pittsburgh completely on four-lane highways with no traffic lights, you have to drive south along Interstate 79 until it meets up with Interstate 70 and then head west. The corridor — which has no highway number designation — would streamline that trip into an easy 160-mile drive that would be a straight shot into Central Ohio.

One of the biggest pluses, though, would be that the property along the route would be open to great economic growth. That’s according to Ed Looman, the Eastern Ohio project manager for the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, and Nick Homrighausen, executive director of economic development for the Harrison County Community Improvement Corp. They both said that most companies prefer to be located within five or 10 miles of a four-lane highway. Looman had served as president of the association during a previous attempt to get the project going several years ago.

With the current infrastructure, that eliminates a large portion of Harrison County from consideration when companies look to expand or relocate.

Despite that, our region’s economy has grown, thanks to the boom in the oil and gas industry. The association said that during the past five years, 8,690 new jobs have been created and more than $4.5 billion has been invested across the region. Now, the group asks, imagine what those numbers could look like if the new highway was in place.

Area residents who live and do business along the route can see the benefits the highway would bring. But association organizers say they have a couple of tough hurdles to overcome. One, they all agree, is the Ohio Department of Transportation, which in 2011 declared the project to be unfeasible, saying that only 55 jobs would be created in the highway corridor while adding the new road would do little to improve the safety of motorists.

The numbers in that survey make little sense today, Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Gentile said, explaining the statistics had been gathered before the dramatic increase in truck and vehicle traffic that’s tied to the oil and gas industry

ODOT’s job projections were a little off, to say the least, and as for safety … between 2015 and 2017, there have been 70 crashes on a 10-mile stretch of U.S. Route 250 in Harrison County, according to numbers compiled by the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Another factor is a concern about the traffic load carried by Interstate 70 — an already heavily traveled highway — that will need to be addressed much sooner than later. The association said that by 2040, sections of the route are projected to be at or near capacity and will have seen their level of service rating drop as low as an F.

Any improvement will, of course, come with a hefty price tag. Jeannette Wierzbicki, executive director of the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association, said the estimated cost to complete the highway from Cadiz to Newcomerstown would be between $800 million and $900 million, according to the (New Philadelphia) Times-Reporter.

For now, the association plans to find a way to update the corridor study, gather case studies and look for ways to help secure funding. Organizers agree there’s a lot of work ahead, but the project already has the backing of economic development officials and elected officials on all levels of government.

Association officials realize there’s an awful lot of work ahead, but they’re optimistic that it’s possible to get past the obstacles and make the direct Pittsburgh-Columbus connection a reality. Doing so would, they said make a huge impact on 3 million lives along the corridor, which includes counties in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

It’s a project that’s long overdue, but, as Jim Emmerling, owner and president of Em-Media, said during Tuesday’s meeting, “The time is now.”

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)