HUNTINGTON -- Huntington's railroad underpasses are so plagued by flooding problems, cracked walkways and insufficient lighting that local groups are joining forces to improve these gateways to the downtown.

The Hal Greer Boulevard underpass, which connects downtown to Interstate 64, is getting the first facelift. The improvements will be part of a joint operation by the city of Huntington and the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone to clean up the underpasses for drivers and pedestrians.

Huntington City Council approved a resolution in November designating $18,000 of hotel/motel tax proceeds for improvements.

Cathy Burns, executive director of the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone, said the money will be used to perform structural and aesthetic improvements to the walls of the underpass. Edward Tucker Architects Inc. of Huntington recently was contracted to develop the project, which is in its initial planning stages.

Burns said the walls need to be made of a "strong, worry-free material that can withstand a lot of abuse."

The Hal Greer underpass was chosen, Burns said, because it serves as the main entry point from Interstate 64 to the downtown and Marshall University. If funding can be found, the city and empowerment zone would like to make improvements to the other underpasses located between 7th and 8th avenues, Burns said.

"Ultimately the city would like to see all the (underpasses) improved, but it all comes down to funding and the availability of funding," she said.

City Development and Planning Director Charles Holley said the city has struggled in the past to secure funding for underpass improvement projects. The city has asked for $68,000 from the federal stimulus funds to make large improvements to the Hal Greer underpass, he said. The state hasn't made an announcement about the funding.

Improvements include better lighting, new pedestrian guardrails and an improved walkway. Holley categorized the conditions of the Hal Greer underpass as "deplorable."

Since many of the underpasses are not lighted properly, pedestrian travel through the underpasses is a gamble, Burns said.

"(Pedestrians) don't feel safe walking through the underpass in that sort of environment," Burns said. "We want to encourage people to walk more and give people more reason to connect to Huntington."

To receive the federal funds, Holley said the project has to be ready in 120 days. If the money is received, Holley expects the Hal Greer underpass to serve as a good example for other underpass improvements.

"We'll be able to show how successful we can be with the money that we're given," Holley said. "Hopefully it'll spur more successes and get more funding for other (underpasses)."

Another planned improvement are wayfinder signs to direct visitors to city attractions, such as Pullman Square, Harris Riverfront Park, Marshall University and the Big Sandy Superstore Arena.

The empowerment zone has raised funds for those signs through the implementation of a tax increment financing district, Burns said. A TIF district uses a portion of property tax increases within a defined area to fund infrastructure improvements.

The agency has raised $20,000 for wayfinder signs. The four wayfinder signs, costing about $5,000 each, would be placed around the city. They direct traffic to popular destinations in Huntington.

Burns said two large wayfinder signs are planned for each side of the Hal Greer underpass. The signs, which span the entire roadway, will feature a collage of pictures and directions to several attractions, Burns said.

Since the sign would be placed on the sides of the tracks above the underpass, the empowerment zone needs approval from CSX officials in Jacksonville, Fla. The West Virginia Division of Highways maintains the road under the tracks. Burns said the signs have been in the permitting stage for six months.

"This is a little complicated. We've been working carefully with the Division of Highways and CSX," Burns said. "There's multiple levels of approval."

Each underpass sign costs about $9,000. The first priority will be placing a sign on the route into downtown. In the future, a sign may be added to direct people leaving downtown.

"Signage will improve appearance, but, more importantly, will make motorists feel more comfortable and know they're going the right way," Burns said.

HUNTINGTON -- A West Virginia Division of Highways crew surveyed two Huntington underpasses Thursday to improve notification of truck drivers regarding the clearance heights of the underpasses.

The Hal Greer Boulevard and 8th Street underpasses, both between 7th and 8th avenues, were closed Thursday for DOH crews to come up with exact heights.

Ed Armbruster, DOH District 2 assistant engineer for maintenance, said DOH was asked by the city to survey the underpasses to stop trucks from getting wedged in and causing traffic delays. In January, Huntington police said a truck driver made a "serious misjudgment" resulting in a tractor-trailer getting stuck in the 8th Street underpass.

Signs leading up to the underpass indicated the clearance is 13 feet, 2 inches. The trailer was about a foot taller than that, according to police.

Armbruster said new signs will be posted indicating the exact clearances.

"This will provide better notice to truck drivers about what the clearance heights are," Armbruster said. "If they know their truck is too high, they won't try to get through there."

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