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Bridge supporter reflects on project’s history

BRIDGE DISCUSSED — Wellsburg resident Walter Ferguson reflected on efforts in 2003 by the Ohio River Bridge Task Force and the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission in garnering support for the span now under construction. Ferguson shared a video commissioned by the group in which community and business leaders commented on its anticipated benefits. -- Warren Scott

WELLSBURG — A longtime supporter of a new Ohio River bridge near Wellsburg reflected on efforts to generate support for the span while stressing the need for it.

Walter Ferguson told the Brooke County commissioners Tuesday while working as an electrical contractor at American Electric Power’s Cardinal Plant in Brilliant, he often reflected on how it took him 35 to 40 minutes to reach a workplace he could see from his Wellsburg home.

Because he could see advantages of a new Ohio River crossing for himself and others, he became involved with the Ohio River Bridge Task Force, a volunteer group formed in 2003 by former state Senator Jack Yost.

Ferguson was among many community members and leaders, including representatives of West Liberty University and Bethany College, who teamed to lobby state and federal officials for financial support.

Such efforts and two studies commissioned by the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission have led to the ongoing $131 million construction of a span between the south end of Brilliant and an area a mile south of Wellsburg.

Crews with the Flatiron Corp. of Broomfield, Colo., have built the 830-foot-long main span for the bridge in an area along the river behind Smith Oil. Plans call for it to be transported down river using four barges and lifted 80 feet into the air by large hydraulic cranes and onto its piers.

Mike Witherow, district construction engineer for the West Virginia Division of Highways, said the move is expected to occur later this month, pending suitable weather conditions, but a specific date hasn’t been set.

One of the Ohio River Bridge Task Force’s tools in their endeavor was an eight-minute video produced through the WLU communications department under the direction of J.D. Carpenter, who was then the school’s admissions director.

Ferguson presented it to the commissioners to emphasize the reasoning behind the span.

In it, Lauren Weppler, a Brooke High School graduate then studying communications at WLU, interviewed John Brown, former BHJ executive director; John Schwertfeger, the former director of the county’s ambulance service; Douglas Shearn, former manager of the Cardinal Plant; and Gary Mercer, a Wellsburg resident who rowed a boat across the river to reach the Cardinal Plant where he worked.

Brown noted the advancing age of the Market Street Bridge, which was built in 1903, and the Fort Steuben Bridge, which was built in 1928, spurred concerns about the Veterans Memorial Bridge being adequate to serve interstate traffic among the three counties should either of the two older spans be closed.

Brown’s comments proved to be partially prophetic years later.

While the Market Street Bridge underwent about $10 million in renovations in 2010, the Fort Steuben Bridge was closed in 2009 and demolished in 2012.

But Brown also noted weight restrictions for the two older spans also prohibited them from serving heavy trucks.

Schwertfeger said a new bridge would provide a vital emergency route should state Routes 2 or 7 be closed by landslides, a recurring problem along the two highways over the years, and other emergencies.

Shearn and others commented on the potential for a new bridge to boost business development and increase job opportunities near the southern ends of Brooke and Jefferson counties.

Ferguson agreed, saying, “I want people of Brooke County to know how important this bridge is going to be economically.”

Jonette Lazasz of St. Clairsville said her husband would have benefited from the span while working in Wellsburg in the past, adding she also believes it will be good for the community.

“I think it’s going to bring more business. I’m really happy for you folks,” she said.

Ferguson said early supporters of the bridge included County Commissioner Tim Ennis, then a state Delegate, and Wellsburg Mayor Sue Simonetti, who died on March 31.

A.J. Thomas, the commission’s president, noted Simonetti was so optimistic about the span, she said she would dance on it when it was completed.

Thomas said that sadly, the commissioners will have to do that for her.

“She cared not just about this city but about this entire region,” he added.

Ennis also lamented Simonetti’s death, noting he met her while she was serving as Wellsburg city clerk and he was on Wellsburg Council.

“Wellsburg is far better off because of her work,” he said.

On Monday, Follansbee Council observed a moment of silence for Simonetti. On a lighter note, Mayor David Velegol Jr. recalled she and he having pies thrown in their face as part of a fundraiser.

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