I-70 project fight continues

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – A lengthy debate on aspects of the I-70 connector project and whether the county would commit $1.9 million to the first stage of the project as planned dominated much of Wednesday’s Belmont County commissioners’ meeting. The connector would run from Route 40 through property west of the mall and hooking into Mall Road. Other segments of the road would be construction and connected.

Commissioner Matt Coffland motioned for the board to restore the $1.9 million and commit it to the project. His motion was not seconded.

Commissioners Ginny Favede and Charles R. Probst, Jr. said there were questions not answered to their satisfaction. Probst objected to transferring those funds to the TID with no strings attached.

Favede spoke of the changes to the projects, including splitting it into three sub-projects. She expressed concern that there was no guarantee of obtaining Track funding. She also objected to utilizing eminent domain in the course of the project. She noted that the commission does not have the $1.9 million after expending $1 million for road paving. Going into next year, the budget is $1 million more than the auditor’s allocation.

Coffland noted that the TID had committed to building the first section of road, with ODOT building the second and Cafaro the third. The TID’s portion would be a connector road. He said it was not a stub road to a private development. Probst said they could not currently connect to another public road and would not if the road was complete in a year.

He added that St. Clairsville has earmarked about $8 million for the project.

Connie Klema, representing the Stewart family, who face a loss due to eminent domain, said she and the Stewarts were not opposed to the project. She presented a judgment from Common Pleas Court Judge Jennifer Sargus committing a developer to building the road. She questioned the need of spending county funds.

Commissioners also had differing opinions regarding what actions ODOT would take should the project lose local support, with Probst producing a communication from Roxanne Kane, planning administrator, stating that ODOT could complete that segment.

“We need to sort out what is fact and what is truth with this whole project,” he said, adding that it is necessary to gather more information. “This project is going to move forward.”

Coffland noted the scope of the project changed, with local commitment as one factor facilitating the Track funding.

“The project’s ready to roll as-is,” he said.

Probst voiced the concern that the funds could be transferred to the TID and tied up in a lawsuit, possibly delaying the project for years anyway.

The question of what the future of the project would be should the commissioners choose not to commit arose.

During the course of the meeting, commissioners called ODOT District 11 Deputy Director Lloyd McAdam, who had told Coffland the project would be put on hold if the TID had not committed to its segment. He said this could mean a delay of one to two years.

Favede noted that the Cafaro Co. is funding its portion to be reimbursed and inquired to a similar arrangement could be made with the Steins. McAdam said ODOT would make an addition of another lane to the Cafaro project, not necessarily a reimbursement.

Klema said she had been told that because ODOT recognized the valid purpose of the road in alleviating congestion and promoting safety, the department would incorporate the TID’s portion of the project.

McAdam agreed with that assessment, adding that the TID had taken on their segment in the interest of speed. The project would be put on hold and more of the earmarked funds would be spent on studies, with less available for construction.

Dennis Bigler, TID member and service director for St. Clairsville, said this was the most practical arrangement. He pointed out that county participation would be necessary regardless to attain Track funding. He said a delay in the time-sensitive project when many parties are committed would unnecessarily complicate matters. He pointed out that grant deadlines could expire. He said the odds were very likely that a road in this area would lead to development.

Probst requested a timeline on north development including roads, utility infrastructure, businesses, and related development so that the commissioners know how much time is available to gather information and funding if needed.

“We are willing to commit to this project, but we need to know what’s going to happen with everybody involved,” he said, noting the importance of Track funding for the project.

A call was made to Bill Street, engineer who designed the TID’s portion of the project, who confirmed that the $1.9 million would be sufficient combined with other sources to complete the connector road. The TID would bid the project and adhere to county bid criteria.

“The money is not an issue. Priorities is an issue. Your word is an issue. That is what I stand by,” Coffland said, noting the potential benefit in retail and employment. “A lot of people have worked on this project to move this project forward. It’s a shame to everyone and a shame to Belmont County.”

“I will not vote to move $1.9 million of taxpayers’ dollars without an agreement and protection for this board of commissioners and the citizens of Belmont County,” said Probst.

DeFrank can be reached at rdefrank@timesleaderonline.com