The Ohio Department of Transportation will close the intersection of Johnson Road and U.S. Route 33 effective Monday, Aug. 23 — despite the continuing protests of local residents and officials and potential problems with the traffic study used to justify the project.
Signs announcing the closure appeared on Rt. 33 near the intersection on the morning of Friday, Aug. 13. Only days before, ODOT spokesperson Ashley Rittenhouse had told the Athens NEWS that the project did not yet have a schedule to begin.
ODOT Spokesperson Matt Bruning said Friday the contractor had reached out Thursday with plans and the department wanted communications to begin as soon as possible.
The project website and previous communications had only a general timetable of August–October 2021.
In an email to the Athens NEWS ODOT awarded a contract for $206,996 to Shelly & Sands on July 22, according to Rittenhouse.
Shelly & Sands will remove the median pavement and left-turn lanes from both eastbound and westbound Rt. 33, as well as create a turnaround on Johnson Road where traffic currently enters and exits the highway. Drivers would still be able to turn right from westbound Rt. 33 onto Athens Twp. Rd. 251, River Road, and from River Road onto westbound Rt. 33.
ODOT announced in June that the project would advance as previously proposed, citing a number of dangerous crashes at the intersection. The state agency has sought to close the intersection for years: Athens NEWS online articles on the proposed closure go back to 2013, and ODOT's video presentation on the project suggests the agency has been monitoring the area since 1997.
The closure has been pushed off in large part by local opposition — most recently, during a March public hearing attended largely by community and business leaders (including Mark Cohen from The NEWS’ parent company, Adams Publishing Group). More than 140 people have commented on the project's ODOT website; currently, comments are nearly 2.5:1 against the project.
Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel expressed frustration at the project's planned total closure of the exit.
“Well, it doesn't really seem like anybody's really for it,” said Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel. “It doesn't seem like they're listening to anybody.”
Ohio Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, had strong words for the project, saying in a text he was “100 percent” opposed to the closure, and said he sees widespread opposition from local leaders.
“It seems like most of the project’s supporters work at ODOT’s headquarters in Columbus,” Edwards said. “The goal should be to work with the community to improve our roads and improve public safety, not simply shift the problem to The Plains, which is what this proposed ‘solution’ does.”
The most often-voiced concern is that closing the Johnson Road intersection will greatly increase traffic through The Plains on Rt. 682 and on side streets. In ODOT's proposed new traffic flow, drivers who currently access Rt. 33 eastbound by turning right from Johnson Road would instead follow state Route 682 northward through The Plains to use the Rt. 33 eastbound entrance ramp from Rt. 682. Those who currently turn left from westbound Rt. 33 onto Johnson Road would use the Rt. 682 exit, turning left onto southbound Rt. 682.
A traffic study conducted in March 2020 projected there would not be a “significant increase” in traffic with the Johnson Road closure, according to spokesperson Rittenhouse. She said the study was completed before the pandemic and while school was in session.
ODOT has repeatedly told commenters that the changed traffic flow will not be a concern: A standard response to public comments reads, "We took traffic counts while school was in session. We analyzed the exiting conditions, moved traffic around, and analyzed the proposed condition. Once we had both we were able to compare them and we found no major issues."
Athens City School District Superintendent Tom Gibbs did not share that sentiment. He told The Athens NEWS he believes the closure “will significantly increase traffic on 682.”
“In the absence of significant investment in SR 682 prior to closing of the Johnson Road intersection, there would be significant safety concerns on a route that is already very traffic heavy at various times during the day,” Gibbs said in a letter to a parent who was concerned about the closure.
Gibbs said ACSD will keep an eye on traffic patterns after the closure to see whether the school needs to take traffic mitigation measures.
The Athens NEWS obtained a copy of the study report, which shows that the predicted peak traffic volume on Rt. 682 in the afternoon could increase from 522 vehicles to 729 vehicles — an increase of almost 40%.
Commenters also expressed concern about the potential for traffic to back up onto Rt. 33. "A single crash on SR-682 near US-33 would stop traffic, allow it to back up onto US-33, and make through travel impossible," wrote on commenter on March 14, 2021.
ODOT's traffic study suggests those fears are would be well-founded if no adjustments were made on traffic lights on the exit ramp from westbound U.S. Rt. 33 to 682.
The study shows that during peak traffic hours also would nearly double. The westbound exit was “the most concerning difference,” according to the report, and raises “concern for backup onto US 33.”
Eric Davis, ODOT District 10 studies engineer who conducted the study, said he had measured the exit ramps to ensure traffic backlogs could fit on the ramp. He also said at all intersections in the study, ODOT ensured the level of service, or delay times, would remain at acceptable levels.
ODOT grades existing and potential delays on a letter scale where a C is the baseline. The westbound Rt. 33 exit ramp to Rt. 682 is already graded D. The new traffic pattern would increase the number of cars turning left onto Rt. 682 from 110 to 376.
“Delay on this movement more than doubled and the existing (level of service ranking D) changed to a (level of service ranking F),” the report states.
Bruning said this situation was a worst-case scenario and is what is projected without stop light timing changes.
Bruning said timing changes have been part of the planned closure since the beginning, and the situation would not advance without light timing changes.
Changes to light timing along 682 are planned on Aug. 17, Bruning said.
Athens County Engineer Jeff Maiden sent the study to an independent engineering consultant for review in late March 2020. The consultant, Paul C. Goodhue, P.E., found that the "the crash history, currently, at this intersection does not support the additional countermeasure that calls for closing off Johnson Road at US-33." Goodhue also criticized the report for focusing solely on eliminating crashes at the Johnson Road–Rt. 33 intersection.
"There is no discussion in the study that explains the predicted or expected safety performance of this intersection based on implementing variations of the countermeasures offered in the study and instead detail how alternatives address the past crash history, but not reducing expected crashes," Goodhue wrote.
Other questions about the study involve assumptions related to traffic modeling.
The Athens NEWS' review of the report also noted that the traffic study doesn't account for drivers who may use side streets in residential neighborhoods to avoid traffic on Rt. 682.
Davis said the software used to model traffic flow, Synchro and StreetLight, assumes drivers will remain on main streets. The model recommends adjustments to traffic signals along Rt. 682 to compensate for any increased traffic.
The Athens Township Trustees wrote a letter to ODOT in April 2021 asking for further research into the traffic impacts. “The Athens Township Board of Trustees believes traffic flows and patterns on SR 682 through The Plains and in the vicinity of (local schools) should be evaluated before a consideration of closure on Johnson Road,” they wrote.
The Athens County Regional Planning Commission also sent a letter to ODOT in April asking the agency to reconsider its plan. "This topic has been discussed over the past several months at our meetings and is a concern to many members of the commission and the community at large," the letter states. "Many commission members drive this area frequently and have a great deal of professional and observational knowledge of the situation."
The letter supports a counterproposal that Athens County Engineer Jeff Maiden sent to ODOT in February 2021: closing the median to left-hand turns, while still retaining right turns from Johnson Road onto eastbound Rt. 33.
"We believe and support [Maiden's] letter to you dated February 4, 2021, that provides backing information and a reasonable alternative to the current project ODOT has proposed," the letter states.
The letter also asked ODOT to perform a new traffic study on Rt. 682 after the median is removed, but before closing off Johnson Road. But this time, they said, ODOT should evaluate traffic flow from Rt. 682's intersection with Rt. 33 in Dover Township, just southwest of Chauncey, to its intersection with W. Union St. in Athens.
"[The commission] believes that further study of traffic patterns driving between The Plains and Athens is warranted prior to a total closure of Johnson Road because such a closure will greatly increase traffic at the US 33/682 interchange in Dover Township and the SR 682/SR 56 intersection in the City of Athens," the letter states.
The points made were unanimously approved by Athens City Planner Paul Logue, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, Amesville Mayor Gary Goosman, all three Athens County Commissioners, Athens Township Trustee Steve Pierson, Waterloo Township Trustee Gregg Andrews, and planning commission members Boone Troyer and Warren Jeffers, according to the letter. Edwards and state Sen. Frank Hoagland, R–Mingo Junction, were copied on the letter.
ODOT's response, dated April 7, refers to the March 2020 report states that adding a right turn lane was considered as an alternative, but not recommended. This option was rejected because it "would increase cost, reducing the benefit to cost ratio," according to the report. Davis said that ODOT had projected that extra work to increase visibility on a hypothetical right-turn-only Johnson Road would increase the cost of the project. That information is not stated in the report.
Davis acknowledged the current plan has a lower cost-benefit projection than any of the alternatives.
Maiden said his alternative would improve safety in the area without drastically altering overall traffic patterns.
“It was justified to close the center median but I feel like there weren't enough accidents on the right lane,” Maiden said.
Yet despite broad opposition to ODOT's proposal, he said there isn’t much to be done anymore as the contract has been struck with Shelly & Sands.
“ODOT has made the decision to do it as such,” Maiden said.
Editor's note: This article was updated Aug. 13 to include information about signage on Rt. 33, communication from ODOT regarding the construction schedule, and the Athens County Regional Planning Commission's April 2021 letter to ODOT. The article was updated later on Aug. 13 to reflect additional statements from Matt Bruning, ODOT spokesperson.