Johnson Road

Johnson Road. Art by Terry Smith.

A project proposed by the Ohio Department of Transportation aimed at reducing the risk of severe crashes at an Athens County intersection will be moving forward, the agency announced on Wednesday.

The project will close the Johnson Road connection to U.S. Rt. 33 in The Plains beginning this year to reroute traffic at what’s been deemed a dangerous intersection. The cost of the improvement project is estimated at $250,000, ODOT said on the project’s website.

Presently, the closure date of the connection has yet to be determined, ODOT District 10 Public Information Officer Ashley Rittenhouse said. According to an ODOT press release, the project is scheduled to be sold to a contractor in July 2021. The estimated construction schedule is August to October of 2021. 

As proposed, the project aims to redistribute right turns from Johnson Road to U.S. Rt. 33 to the U.S. Rt. 33 eastbound entrance ramp from Rt. 682 northbound. Left turns from Rt. 33 will be changed to the U.S. Rt. 33 westbound exit ramp with a left turn onto Rt. 682, the ODOT project website states.

The proposed project would also remove the left-turn lanes from both eastbound and westbound Route 33. Median pavement will be removed, and a turnaround on Johnson Road would also be constructed. Johnson Road traffic would move to the State Route 682 corridor, and River Road would remain a right-in-right-out.

The safety improvement project was met with community concern during its beginning proposal stage.

At the March virtual public hearing of the safety improvement project, many speakers voiced fear that the project may impact the surrounding area’s economy. In addition, some raised the point that Johnson Road is often used by law enforcement and emergency personnel to access parts of The Plains. Still, others pointed to traffic build-up around Athens High School, which has families, along with young motorists, shuttling in and out of the area during specific times of the day.

Some speakers advocated for the addition of an in-person public hearing prior to ODOT making a decision about the project’s status, but no such event occurred. A public comment period was held where area residents could submit their questions and concerns virtually or by mail. The project’s website is packed with nearly 150 comments submitted over the past several months that offer alternative methods of addressing safety improvement or voice general concern for the project’s potential impact on The Plains.

More recently, in 2019, the intersection saw three crashes that resulted from a motorist making a left turn; one crash transpired after a 16-year-old girl turned left in front of oncoming freeway traffic, from U.S. Rt. 33 to Johnson Road. A fourth crash that year occurred when a motorist was rear-ended while in the left-turn lane. In 2020, a crash resulted from a motorist making a left turn. All of the left-turn crashes resulted in injury.

ODOT noted on its website that the goal of the project is to improve safety and reduce crashes in that area by decreasing the number of potential “conflict points.”

Conflict points are where paths of different movement cross; thus, the fewer points of conflict, the fewer opportunities for cars to come in contact with one another while traveling.

“With the current proposal to remove the mainline left turn lanes and to close off Johnson Road, there will only be two conflict points: one for traffic turning right off of westbound US 33 onto River Road, and one for traffic turning right from River Road onto westbound US 33,” Rittenhouse previously said.

ODOT had considered other methods to address safety in the area. The following were methods the department considered to address safety improvement:

For example, the department looked into only closing the median and turning Johnson Road into a right-in-right-out style of intersection. The department also considered adding a right-turn lane or acceleration lane to Route 33 eastbound. The acceleration lane idea was met with a near insurmountable hurdle, however. It would require at least 1,560 feet of pathway, and approximately 950 feet from the intersection rests a bridge.

The section of Route 33 is no stranger to safety projects. In 1997, all movements were permitted in the intersection — motorists could turn right or left driving off of connections. That set-up resulted in a high number of conflict points; ODOT estimated 42 total. Three years later, signs prohibiting left turns and thru movements from Johnson and River Run Roads were installed. This chiseled down the conflict points from 42 to 14.

In 2013, directional bollards were installed at the intersection. The bollards were placed to discourage drivers from moving in prohibited directions and to physically reinforce a left turn. That safety measure did not change the number of conflict points.

Editor’s note: For full disclosure, The Athens NEWS’ newsroom is located within The Athens Messenger building near the Johnson Road connection.

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