Shortly after morning worship services Sunday, commuters on both sides of the Ohio River and residents of Ashland, Coal Grove and Ironton had their prayers answered: The Ben Williamson Memorial Bridge, which connects U.S. 52 in Ohio to U.S. 23 in Kentucky, was opened to traffic for the first time since late May. That’s when a truck struck a beam on the Ohio side of the bridger and engineers for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet determined the bridge was unsafe for traffic. Thus, the bridge was closed to traffic.
The decision to close the bridge was not popular with many residents on either side of the river. Even though none of the critics had the opportunity to look at the damage and most were not engineers, they were convinced the bridge was safe for traffic and closing it was an overreaction on the part of Kentucky transportation officials.
We did not share that view. Given the circumstances, it was far wiser to err on the side of safety than to risk a horrible accident caused by the constant flow of traffic on the damaged bridge.
In addition, we knew from experience it was possible to keep traffic moving across the Ohio River at a reasonable pace with only one of the two bridges in use. Shortly after the new Simeon Willis Bridge was completed, the Ben Williamson Bridge was closed for major improvements that took almost four years to complete. During that time traffic on Winchester Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in downtown flowed pretty much like it had from late May until Monday. It was not ideal, but with patience, it was a necessary inconvenience in the name of safety.
Another frequent complaint we heard from area residents is no work was taking place on the Ben Williamson bridge — and they were right. The bridge was closed for safety not to make immediate repairs on it. In fact, most of the work on the bridge was done many miles from Ashland and workers could not work on the bridge because the parts they needed were not ready. Recognizing the slowness of getting the necessary parts, the Cabinet extended the time originally given to Evers Welding Co. Inc. of Cincinnati to complete the work by two weeks, from July 31 to Aug. 12.
After several weeks of engineering, finalizing shop drawings, fabricating replacement steel and scheduling roadway and railroad traffic control, contractors arrived at the bridge Friday and began cutting away the damaged beam. From that point, work on the bridge went extremely quickly. The new beam was installed Saturday, and crews finished painting steel joints and other work Sunday. Highway crews reset traffic signals while temporary traffic controls were removed on the Ohio side, and the bridge reopened shortly after 1 p.m.
Some traffic control measures will remain in place for several days, including temporary pavement markings across the Willis bridge. Traffic across that bridge will remain restricted to two lanes outbound from Kentucky to Ohio. In addition, the lane restriction on Winchester Avenue (U.S. 23) in Ashland could remain in place for several days.
But traffic already is reasonably normal on both bridges, and the journey from Ohio to Kentucky or vice versa is much easier, quicker and safer.
This project again reminds us of the wisdom exhibited by state and local officials in the early 1970s to build the new Ashland bridge next to the Ben Williamson Bridge instead of further upstream around 31st or 33rd streets as some were advocating.
Crossing the Ohio River by car or truck is much easier today than it was on Saturday, and it will get even easier when the new bridge linking Russell and Ironton is opened to traffic.