EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can submit questions to the staff.
This question has, without a doubt, been on the minds of Knox County residents for months.
Since August 2019, the section of Mount Vernon Avenue between Cougar Drive and Lower Gambier Road has been reduced to one lane, as construction crews have rebuilt the bridge that spans the Kokosing River. It’s all part of a $6.8 million project aimed at improving city infrastructure and increasing accessibility between the Kokosing Gap Trail and other city locations.
City Engineer Brian Ball admits that reducing Mount Vernon Avenue – a major connector between the southern and eastern ends of the city – to one lane caused traffic backups last fall. But over time, Ball said local residents have found other routes to get from one end of town to the other. He believes the traffic light near the bridge has become less congested.
“People are getting used to it,” he said.
So, when will the bridge project wrap up?
“I’m thinking sometime in late August, the road will probably be fully open,” Ball said. The entire project, which includes intersection improvements and the creation of two multi-use trails, should be finished by Oct. 30.
Ball originally estimated the project would take a year, and he said it’s still on schedule. The project’s completion date will largely depend on the weather this spring and summer, he said.
What to expect moving forward
The project is being broken up into three phases. The first includes the reconstruction of the south side of the bridge, which is still in progress. The second will involve the reconstruction of the north side, and the third will center around intersection improvements and the construction of multi-use trails.
The Ohio Department of Transportation is managing the project, which is being funded largely through ODOT grants. The city provided design and environmental work beforehand, Ball said, and is constantly communicating with ODOT on the project.
Danielle Patterson, project engineer for ODOT’s fifth district, said in an email last week that she expects construction workers to return to the bridge this week. They were off during the winter months, as is standard in the labor-intensive and weather-dependent paving industry.
When workers return, Patterson said they will resume Phase I. Their first objective will be to build protective walls on the south side of the bridge. There will be bike lanes on each side of the bridge, 13 feet wide, and walls will shield cyclists from traffic (interior) and the river (exterior).
After this is done, Patterson said construction crews will be able to pour the deck for the bridge’s south lane. The reinforcing steel is already in place on that side of the bridge, she said.
Once local asphalt plants reopen in mid-April (they close during the winter months because asphalt cannot be poured if ground temperatures dip below 45 degrees, Ball said), construction crews will top off the bridge’s south lane. Patterson predicts it will reopen in May, and crews will then begin working on the bridge’s north lane – taking it apart, widening it and paving it.
If all goes according to plan, Ball predicts the north lane will be finished by August. Then, both lanes will once again be open.
The third phase of the project will include upgrades to the Cougar Drive/Mount Vernon Avenue intersection.
Both Cougar Drive and Mount Vernon Avenue will receive turn lanes – one will allow drivers to turn left from Mount Vernon Avenue onto Cougar Drive (it will be a middle turn lane), and the other will allow drivers to turn right from Cougar Drive onto Mount Vernon Avenue (it will be a right-hand turn lane). This means both roads will be widened, Ball said, in order to expand from two lanes to three.
The elevation of the intersection will also change, Ball said. The city plans to make the intersection flatter, eliminating the slope that currently leads up to Mount Vernon Avenue from Cougar Drive. This will make it easier for buses and trucks to go from Cougar Drive onto Mount Vernon Avenue, Ball said.
The Mount Vernon Avenue/Cougar Drive intersection will be closed for 21 days this spring, Ball said, so that work can be done.
The project’s third phase will also 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 last spring.
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 limits the quality of the pour, ODOT is hoping to build a bridge that will last. This would 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.