UPDATE (4 p.m. Monday): The City of Mount Vernon has announced that the area of the Kokosing Gap Trail near the Mount Vernon Avenue access point will now be closed for the next 21 days in order to keep residents safe during the bridge construction process.
Heavy equipment will be involved during this next stage, the city said in a press release, and the Ohio Department of Transportation requested the trail be closed as a safety precaution.
MOUNT VERNON – One of Mount Vernon’s most ambitious infrastructure projects will likely take longer than expected due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Mount Vernon Avenue bridge project – a $6.8 million effort that will widen the bridge, add multi-use trails and increase safety at nearby intersections – has experienced “a COVID-related delay,” according to Ohio Department of Transportation District Five Public Information Officer Morgan Overbey. ODOT is managing the project, which is being funded largely through state grants (the City of Mount Vernon has provided design and environmental work).
Overbey said Shelly & Sands, the Ohio-based contractor working the project, had to shut down for 30 days at the beginning of construction season “due to concerns of efficiency and being able to follow the Ohio Department of Health’s social distancing guidelines.”
“This is not unique to this project,” Overbey noted, as many other contractors took similar steps to keep their employees safe.
This means, however, that the Mount Vernon Avenue bridge project might not be finished by the end of the year. While ODOT still expects the structure itself to be built by the time winter hits, “temperature- and weather-related stipulations will not allow paving of the surface course and permanent striping to be completed until the spring of next year,” Overbey said.
“At this time, we do not know if the bridge will still be restricted through the winter.”
Before the pandemic hit, the bridge was expected to reopen by late August. The entire project, which includes intersection improvements and the creation of two multi-use trails, was set to be finished by Oct. 30.
The project began in August 2019. Since then, traffic on the Mount Vernon Avenue bridge has been reduced to one lane, as construction crews have worked on the south side of the bridge. Beginning Monday, Lower Gambier Road and Cougar Drive will be closed, so that construction crews can begin to build the approaches to the south lane of the bridge.
The asphalt on these portions of the road will be replaced, Overbey said, and drainage work will be done. Cougar Drive will also be widened during this time.
That process should take approximately three weeks, City Engineer Brian Ball said.
“The road’s gonna be three lanes wide with a bike trail, so basically the asphalt leading up to the bridge, we call that the ‘approach,’” Ball explained. “Obviously we have to widen the road on either side of the bridge, so that the new road and the bike trail all line up.
“So that work basically on the east side goes all the way back to the Center Run bridge, and on the west side it goes all the way through the intersection to Cougar Drive. And that’s why we had to close these intersections, because they’ll be widening Mount Vernon Avenue through both of these intersections and changing the road.”
The area of the Kokosing Gap Trail near the Mount Vernon Avenue access point will be closed during this time, the city announced Monday, in order to keep residents safe during the construction process.
Those hoping to access Mount Vernon Nazarene University or the city wastewater plant will need to take Division Street and Yellow Jacket Drive to get there.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience during this time for this much needed improvement project,” Mayor Matt Starr said in a press release announcing the changes.
Eventually, construction crews will reopen the bridge's south lane and begin working on the north lane – taking it apart, widening it and paving it. Overbey said this traffic switch should happen by late July.
The project's final phase will include the construction of two concrete multi-use trails. One will stem from the bike lane on the bridge’s south side, running along Cougar Drive and onto MVNU’s campus (MVNU donated this land for the project). The other will stem from the bike lane on the bridge’s north side, and it will head west toward Memorial Park and downtown Mount Vernon.
The trails will offer a safe connection between the Kokosing Gap Trail and some of Mount Vernon’s busiest recreational locations.
“This is creating not only a safer passageway for students to the high school, middle school and MVNU from the Kokosing Gap Trail, but also for community residents and trail riders that are coming in,” James Smith, MVNU’s Vice President for University Relations, said in a statement announcing the project in April 2019.
The city views this project as a long-term investment – not only in Mount Vernon’s recreational scene, but also its transportation infrastructure. When the opportunity presented itself last year, Ball said the city took it.
“With the observed degradation of the Mount Vernon Avenue Bridge, we knew it would need replaced,” Ball said in a statement. “We had an opportunity to apply for ODOT funding, which in the near future the ODOT funding would not have been available for our bridge.
"With access to ODOT funding we then worked to maximize public benefits. We had a one-time opportunity to provide upgrades not only for motorists, but also for pedestrians and cyclists.”
Ball hopes the new bridge will last “70 to 100 years,” which is far longer than the current bridge’s 40-year lifespan. By holding off on pouring concrete during the winter months, which Ball said would have limited the quality of the pour, ODOT is hoping to build a bridge that will last. This could save the city money long-term, Ball explained.
ODOT grants will cover a large portion of construction costs for this project. A Small Municipal Bridge Grant will provide $2.5 million for bridge construction, while two Transportation Alternative Grants will cover 95 percent of construction costs (approximately $2 million) for the multi-use trails. The city will cover all remaining costs.