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Explaining the I-70 Mall Road project truths

December 6, 2013
By GINNY FAVEDE , Times Leader

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie gets up and runs around the world before the truth even gets out of bed." It seems the perfect comment when dealing with the issues surrounding the I-70 Mall Road debacle we are dealing with. Somehow, I kept waiting for the truth to rise to the top. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case and I feel it is my responsibility to explain the truth of the situation. I will first preface this issue with the fact that both Commissioner Probst and I do support this project and we are both strong advocates for economic development. I have personally worked on this project for more than five years, as I did serve as a councilwoman for the City of St. Clairsville prior to becoming a county commissioner. The project has changed dramatically since its inception and does not even remotely resemble what was first planned. The original design was a $50 million braided diamond interchange that addressed the exits at both Route 9 and Banfield Road, as well as additional exits ramps between exits 218 and 216. The first year in office I worked diligently with former Congressmen Wilson and Space to repurpose nearly $30 million worth of existing federal earmarks that have been sitting unused in Belmont County for years. One such earmark was left by former Congressman Applegate, which should give you an idea of how old it is! The federal government intended to address this in the Transportation Reauthorization Bill but unfortunately it was not. Additionally, we submitted a downsized version of this project to Stimulus Funds in 2009, but did not receive any funding. We spent years working with ODOT to try to get this project back on track. We were convinced that building this road and ramp would open up this property for development and put our county back on the road to recovery. Over the past few years, Belmont County has experienced a rebirth and our retail has ignited once again. There is tremendous growth and development. We were successful in getting ODOT back on the project when we finally committed county dollars toward the project. Our intent when committing the money was to show how important this project was to our county. The project, when the funds were committed, was a road from Route 40 through the property behind Lowes that connects to a ramp that goes over I-70 and connects to Willow Grove Road. The project was a coordinated effort between the City of St. Clairsville, TID (Transportation Improvement District) and the Belmont County Commissioners. The total for the project still exceeded the amount of dollars we currently held. The city possessed a $6.9 million earmark of which $5.2 million still remains, TID possessed $700,000 and $900,000 in TRAC funds and Belmont County Commissioners $1.9 million. The total of the project at this point was estimated to be $18.8 million. These figures are taken from the BEL 70/Mall Overview PID 89314 distributed on 5/16 by ODOT. It was and is my understanding that the remaining amount could be obtained through a grant application process known as TRAC funding. The TRAC application is due in May of 2014. Then and only then will we know whether or not this project will ever be funded by the State of Ohio to the extent that it can actually be fully completed from end to end. Up until May at the meeting held with ODOT, TID and the City of St. Clairsville, the plan was one project that started at Route 40 and ended at Willow Grove Road. A project that still needed money, a great amount of money that would be applied for in May of 2014. At this meeting, ODOT began talking about a project that would be broken into three segments. #1 Route 40 through the property behind Lowes #2 A road built by the Cafaros off of Mall Ring Road and #3 the connector bridge (overpass) The discussion was that the county would "swap' their $1.9 million in cash for the City's $5.2 earmark allowing the City to build their road into Mr. Stein's property. Then, the Cafaros would fund and build their road and the earmark would be held until the TRAC funding application was filed. I immediately moved out of my chair and down the table where I communicated with the city's service director that I would not support turning over the county money like that. Our commitment was to a total project and that having been a former City of St. Clairsville Councilwoman that the people of Belmont County would run me up a flag pole for turning that kind of money over to my city. I reiterated this concern in the parking lot after the meeting, on the phone several days later when I called to clarify he'd rectified the situation with ODOT. I also telephoned the mayor at home to share this concern with him and to let him know I could not support giving the county money to St. Clairsville. The issue at hand is that several individuals made the decision to use county money to fund their portion of the project without the express approval of the Board of Commissioners. This "swap" concept is a farce as the earmark cannot be used for anything other than this project regardless. The problem is twofold, one you cannot allow people outside of the commission to make decisions regarding county dollars without the support of the county commissioners. After making this decision, during a TID meeting when again I asked why this particular individual had continued to make decisions involving county dollars knowing I had repeatedly made clear I wouldn't support it, he replied " I know you told me no and I just ignored you, I figured you were mad about something and you'd get over it!" The second is if we allow this precedent to be set, what prevents this from reoccurring when other municipalities work with a single commissioner and make decisions for county dollars without involving the board of commissioners? This is a very dangerous path and one that needs to be strongly considered before progressing.



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