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Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch Traffic travels along Ohio 7 near Fairland East Elementary School on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in Proctorville. The KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission seeks to determine the viability of a Merritts Creek Bridge over the Ohio River, connecting the Merritts Creek connector in Lesage to Ohio Route 7 in Rome Township.

CHESAPEAKE — The long-discussed Chesapeake Bypass may have soon have new life as the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission begins to determine the viability of a Merritts Creek Bridge over the Ohio River, connecting the Merritts Creek connector in Lesage to Ohio Route 7 in Rome Township.

The bridge and the completion of the Chesapeake Bypass between Proctorville and Chesapeake are the missing links to a Tri-State Outer Belt project, Lawrence County officials say. Originally proposed in 1953 as a way to reroute thru-traffic from the downtown stretches of Chesapeake and Proctorville, the project has been mothballed and revived several times over the decades based on funding and interest from the state government.

"One of the critical things the state of Ohio is looking at when thinking about this is that it's now an outer belt, and not a bypass for the urban area," said Ralph Kline, assistant executive director of the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization.

Instead of simply a speedy cut-through, the Chesapeake Bypass is now being considered as part of a greater Tri-State Outer Belt project, which could divert traffic around the Huntington metropolitan area off the main thoroughfare on Interstate 64. This outer belt method has long been in place in cities like Columbus and Cincinnati, which are both encircled by major highways, easing transportation from the main interstates.

West Virginia, which maintains the Ohio River to the low water mark on the Ohio side, would need to build the bridge to connect Ohio Route 7 and the Merritts Creek connector, but Ohio would need to pay for the bridge approach on the Ohio side for the project to proceed. West Virginia's recently passed $1.4 billion road bond project also could help move the project forward, Kline said.

Consistent funding over the decades has also seen stalls, in part from wavering interest from the state government, so that the Chesapeake Bypass has been built in phases. Two parts already have been completed over the years: the connection to U.S. 52 and the West 17th Street Bridge west of Chesapeake, and the connection from the East End Bridge to State Route 775 north of Proctorville, the latter terminating where the proposed Ohio River crossing would be built near Fairland East Elementary School.

"The challenge we see is that the state of Ohio, when they rate projects for need, often take only a close-up view of the benefit of the project," Kline said. "With the bridge connection, they're now beginning to see this as the new outer belt, and not just getting around Chesapeake."

In early March, Lawrence County announced it would join with Cabell County and Barboursville officials and the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission to pay for a $250,000 feasibility study to determine the need and viability of a Merritts Creek Bridge over the Ohio River.

The Lawrence County Board of Commissioners agreed to pay $10,000 for a share of the costs, while the county engineer's office and the Lawrence County Port Authority will pay $5,000 each. Cabell County and Barboursville are to contribute $30,000, and KYOVA would come up with the rest, Lawrence County Auditor Jason Stephens told The Herald-Dispatch.

A contingency of Lawrence County residents also traveled to Columbus in late January seeking support from the state Transportation Advisory Review Committee for the Tri-State Outer Belt,

In an encouraging sign, the group was invited back by the committee to discuss the project and the potential from the community to come up with matching funds for the project. Lawrence County is seeking $12.5 million for engineering and property acquisition toward the project - approximately $1 million for engineering and design work and more than $11 million for right of way.

Reporter David E. Malloy contributed to this report. Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.


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