$300M Roadway Aims to Link Fort Wayne, Toledo

Mon November 21, 2005 - Midwest Edition
Linda J. Hutchinson

Safety is the primary driving force behind the relocation and realignment of U.S. 24 from Fort Wayne, IN, to Toledo, OH.

U.S. 24 is a major transportation corridor linking agricultural and industrial areas, stretching from Ontario, Canada, through Detroit to Toledo, and westward to Fort Wayne. U.S. 24 provides access to the Port of Toledo, to Toledo Express Airport and to major rail carriers along the corridor.

The Fort to Port corridor suffers a deteriorating level of service due to the high volume of commercial truck traffic, inadequate passing zones, sight distance, travel speed and the number of driveway cuts, or access points, for local residences and businesses.

Historic sites and parks adjacent to the roadway providing vistas of the scenic Maumee River add motorists interested in recreation to the already over-crowded highway.

Efforts to realign and improve U.S. 24 began to show up in reports in 1962. Without readily available funding sources and with local opposition to farmland takings, the Ohio Department of Highways did not pursue the project.

Public initiatives formed the Fort-to-Port Organization in 1989 as a grass-roots activity, which ultimately led politicians to incorporate the Lafayette, IN, to Fort Wayne, IN, to Toledo area into the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor.

U.S. 24 has been identified as a macro corridor in the ACCESS OHIO plan and its importance has been recognized and identified as one of the 21 High Priority Corridors as part of the National Highway System in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. It is a part of Governor Bob Taft’s comprehensive, 10-year transportation plan for the state of Ohio.

The current plan takes into consideration a Fort to Port corridor that exists largely as a two-lane highway, with no limitations on access, and is fraught with curves and no pass zones. The section to be relocated is bounded on both ends by four-lane, divided highway sections.

The first four phases are under the jurisdiction of Ohio Department of Transportation, District 1. Bids for contracts will be taken in February 2006 for the 3-mi. section beginning at the intersection of SR 424 and ending at the intersection of SR 15/18. Bids for contracts will be taken in November 2006 for the 12-mi. section beginning east of SR 66 and ending at the Napoleon bypass.

Bid dates will be announced for the 12-mi. stretch of highway beginning at the Indiana border and ending west of SR 127, and for the 11-mi. stretch beginning at SR 127 and ending at SR 424 at the western edge of Defiance at a later date.

According to Dan Kaseman, production administrator of District 1, the approximately 35-mi. project should be completed by 2010 at an estimated cost of $175 million.

Kaseman also pointed out they will be adhering strictly to environmental guidelines on all projects, and especially to protecting the bald eagles and Indiana bats. No tree removal will be allowed during Sept. 15 and April 15, which is the nesting time for the Indiana bats, and all trees removed must be replaced along the stream banks.

Mike Ligibel, production administrator of District 2, plans to begin taking bids in 2008 for the 22-mi. of mostly two-lane roadway between Napoleon and Waterville.

Completion of the relocation is scheduled for 2012.

Ligibel cited the environmental and feasibility studies, which have been in the process for the past 10 years.

“We’re trying to be as sensitive to how this will impact the local area, and yet be as proactive as possible,” he said.

The safety reasons for the relocation of U.S. 24 are obvious to him. With no passing zones in many areas on the two-lane roadway, it isn’t uncommon to see 10 to 12 trucks in a row, “leading to traffic congestion and frustration.”

In both districts, meetings have been held with property owners to explain the procedures and processes. Affected landowners have been able to meet the people involved in the right of way purchase negotiations in public forums before sitting down with them one-on-one. Utility relocations also have been explained in detail.

Attention has been paid to minimize diagonal farm splits and related impacts to farm operations. Meetings have been held with individual farm owners to better define property ownership and operations questions for the benefit of the studies.

The potential for adverse impact to bald eagles was addressed when ODOT entered into a formal consultation with USFWS in accordance with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. Highway alignment was reconfigured to allow maximum offset from existing bald eagle nests along the Maumee River. Refinements also were made to ensure the protected habitats of the Karner blue butterfly, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, the eastern prairie fringed orchid, the piping plover and the Indiana bat

Two major areas of controversy remained during the time of the final study and advocacy groups were formed for both sides.

One was for the preservation of farmland. The subject area contains some of the most viable and productive agricultural land in Ohio. It was feared that too much agricultural land would be taken for the highway project, and the additional traffic brought into the area by the improved highway would lead to increased commercial and residential development.

The second was regarding how the increased traffic volumes on U.S. 24, particularly how commercial trucks would impact the quality of life in the village of Waterville. The village passed a resolution withholding municipal approval for highway widening within the corporate limits.

Also at issue were the Phase II archaeological studies being conducted at six prehistoric sites.