This is an aerial view of the south side of downtown Mount Vernon's traffic pattern along Ohio 13.

Editor’s note: The City of Mount Vernon announced in March that it will receive $3.3 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation for its State Route 13 relocation project – an effort two decades in the making, aimed at reducing traffic congestion and increasing safety in downtown Mount Vernon.

Back in April, we looked at the ways this project would impact traffic flow downtown – examining which streets would become busier, and less busy, as a result. This week, we’ll consider the potential long-term implications of this project, and we’ll look ahead at what’s next.

MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon’s State Route 13 relocation project has been through various iterations over the last two-and-a-half decades, according to City Engineer Brian Ball.

It wasn’t until 2012 that local leaders settled on the current vision.

Since then, the wheels began turning to get the project where it is today – with an estimated one-third of its funding secured and construction expected to begin in two to four years.

The city continued to buy up real estate along State Route 13 as it winds through town – particularly the section between West High Street and the viaduct, where plans call for an expansion of the roadway. It also funded intersection improvements along the state route, at Chestnut Street and West High Street, with grant assistance from the Ohio Public Works Commission.

When the time came in 2017 to decide whether a two-, three- or four-lane highway would be necessary to connect the viaduct to West High Street, local officials chose to slow down and collaborate.

The city and the Area Development Foundation (ADF) contracted with two Columbus-based planning firms, OHM Advisors and GPD Group, to conduct a year-long downtown study that measured traffic, walkability, architecture and more, in an effort to better understand the area’s potential.

The study wrapped up in July 2018. The city first used the results to re-time all of the traffic signals downtown, Ball said, in accordance with current traffic patterns.

Then, local officials used the results to determine the best course of action for the State Route 13 relocation project – which state routes should be moved where, and what other changes would need to be made in order to achieve the desired effect, which is a quicker path through town for pass-through traffic and a quieter, safer downtown core for pedestrians and families.

Local officials also needed to consider future projections, Ball said. What would suit the city best not only now, but also 20 years down the road?

City Engineer Brian Ball shares project plans with Mount Vernon City Council on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Credit: Cheryl Splain

They eventually settled on the current model, Ball said, because it held the “best value” for residents and taxpayers. And planning efforts have only ramped up since.

The city modernized and tightened the intersection at Columbus Road and South Main Street, just south of the viaduct, with grant funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). That project finished in July 2022.

That same month, the city learned it would be receiving its first major block of outside funding for the State Route 13 relocation project – a $264,000 grant from the Central Ohio Rural Planning Organization (an outgrowth of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission), which it had applied for months earlier.

The city used those state and federal dollars to hire GPD Group to be its design contractor for the project, following what Ball described as a “competitive selection process.”

“They’ve been working around the clock ever since,” Ball said.

Then came March, when the city learned it would be receiving $3.3 million in grant funding from ODOT’s Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC), which it had also applied for. Ball called this a “major win” for the project, signaling real momentum after two-and-a-half decades worth of planning.

“We’ve got two major grants. We’re gonna apply for more,” Ball said in April. “This is real.”

So, what’s next for the project? And what is its completion contingent upon? Knox Pages sat down with Ball and Emily Platt, a consultant with the city’s engineering department, to find out.

Land acquisition

The $3.3 million the city received in TRAC funding must be used for real estate acquisition and utility relocation, Ball said. It becomes available in July 2024, and the city will have three years to use it.

Ball said he hopes to finish the process in two years. More than half of the real estate needed for the project has already been acquired, he said, as the city has prepared for the project over the last decade-plus.

“In the (city) budget, there’s a budget worksheet, and buying property has been a line item for this project for several years. So we would do the appraisals and then discuss with the owners to determine what they wanted for it, and then we’d budget for that. …” said Ball, who has served as the city engineer since 2015.

“As we’ve been working down through, they’ve been budgeting a little bit of money to do real estate acquisition every year for a long time – longer than I’ve been here.”

The bend where South Sandusky Street turns into West Ohio Avenue in downtown Mount Vernon. This bend would eventually serve as a connecting point between South Sandusky Street and the viaduct along the new State Route 13.

The real estate needed for this project is located along the path of what would eventually become the new Sandusky Street, between West High Street and the viaduct. It is almost entirely commercial land – businesses, offices and parking lots dotting State Route 13, Phillips Drive and South Main Street.

“The challenge is, it’s not just acquiring the real estate,” Ball said. “Because we are using state and federal aid and because we’re nice people, we have to help all of our partners (whose real estate) we’re buying find a new place – or if they’re retiring, we have to help them move out in a fair way.”

Ball said this portion of the project will likely take two years because the city “needs to be fair to everybody.” If a business wishes to relocate, the city will need to find it a new location that is comparable and agreed-to, and the city will need to help in all phases of the move, Ball said.

Ball said the city is committed to doing right by the businesses that will need to be relocated as a part of this project because “it’s not their fault that they’re moving. We are asking them to move.”

“We do not want anyone to go out of business or leave town because of this project. …” Ball said. “We need to keep them open. We know we need to find a new spot for them and get it set up, so they can move in seamlessly and stay operational the whole time.”

Grant funding

The other major pre-construction hurdle the city will have to clear is obtaining additional grant funding.

Ball said the project carries an estimated price tag of $10 million, and he expects the city to foot 20% of the bill. The goal, he said, is to pay for the rest through grant funding. Ball said the city is “very thankful” to have received the TRAC grant, but there’s more work to be done.

“It’s the second big win,” Ball said. “We need about three or four more.”

The city has applied for an ODOT Small Cities Congestion Mitigation Grant, Ball said, which would provide up to $2.5 million for construction (with a 20% cost share from the city).

While the city had not received word back from the state as of mid-July, Ball said in April that he felt confident Mount Vernon would be competitive for the grant, given the ways the project would economize travel through the city.

“We think this is a home run,” Ball said.

State Route 13 in downtown Mount Vernon.

The city is looking at applying for other state grants down the line as well, Ball said. But now, with two grants under its belt, Platt feels the city is gaining momentum.

She believes receiving the CORPO and TRAC grants for this project over the last year should help the city when it comes to receiving additional support.

“That (CORPO grant) … it was federal funding, a small chunk. But now we can say, ‘Alright, we’ve got $3.3 million,’ and that shows other grant entities justification that somebody supports us, and we are making efforts to continue to get more grants,” Platt said. “That should help us get other grants.”

Looking ahead

The goal, Ball said, is to begin construction sometime between the summer of 2025 and the summer of 2027.

“The money we’re applying for now for construction is Fiscal Year 26. (That’s) the last year you can start. So that means that you have to start construction by July 1, 2027, in terms of ODOT … because their fiscal year starts July 1,” Ball explained. “So we would have to be under construction by the summer of 2027. That’s what people could expect.”

Ball anticipates the southern portion of Sandusky Street being out-of-service for two years, with the project taking three years total to complete.

“Fortunately, we have a grid system downtown, so there shouldn’t be a lot of downtown disruption during construction,” Ball said. “People will have to get used to taking some different routes, and we’ll obviously probably do some temporary routing through downtown to make it easier.”

This is an aerial view of the south side of downtown Mount Vernon’s traffic pattern along Ohio 13.

After two-and-a-half decades of ideating, planning and preparing, Ball and Platt believe the city is primed to complete the project.

While it has taken time to develop, Ball believes that time has been necessary.

“I feel like I was never a procrastinator in college or high school. … I never turned my homework in first, but I also never turned it in last,” he said with a chuckle. “With this project, I will say, there has been an enormous value of not rushing into it.”

The project has been discussed at “hundreds” of public meetings over the last two-and-a-half decades, Ball said. The city has conducted two studies to prepare for it. Local officials have talked with merchants and residents, and have gone on ride-alongs with truck drivers to better understand the struggles they face downtown.

Ball called the project “the public’s work.” By taking the time to do its homework, Ball said the city put itself in a position to create the best plan possible.

“The value of this is the public participation and understanding the user perspective, and understanding how this project would meet other improvements in the downtown and how they work together,” Ball said.

“You know, a lot of places just put an outer-belt in and then draw a line. … This plan has been vetted. And it’s not my idea. This is something that’s now been through two mayors. And both mayors and I have gone to every business that we’re gonna acquire, we’ve talked to them and we’ve tried to listen and understand.”

Through a combination of public input and professional research, Ball believes the city has the right plan in place for the future.

“It’s people’s opinions and it’s also a calibrated computer model that we’ve tested with different alternatives. …” Ball said. “So I think a lot of this is the value that this is a public project. It’s public involvement. There’s a lot of opinions and we’ve tried to look at this from every single angle to get the right thing.”

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