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I-70 closures discussed

HEBRON – Sometimes Hebron Police Chief James Dean doesn’t know I-70 is closed until he sees an ocean of traffic backed-up on US 40 from his office window. By then, it’s far too late.

I-70 traffic has been diverted through the Village of Hebron six times since January 2004 because of high water covering the highway near the Ohio 79 and I-70 interchange or traffic accidents. Hebron officials say they are among the last to know when it happens.

A I-70 closure sends the bulk of traffic from one of the nation’s busiest interstates through the small village, snarling US 40 for hours and blocking Hebron emergency vehicles. Hebron Mayor Clifford Mason called together state and local transportation, law enforcement, and public officials to discuss the problem Wednesday morning at the Hebron Municipal Complex.

“It causes gridlock at its worst. There’s no way out for us,” said Dean. “It just overwhelms the system. We need solutions.”

Licking County Commissioner Doug Smith said Dean and his department still must respond to emergency calls under the circumstances, but traffic traps the Hebron cruisers in the municipal complex parking lot. “We need to get them in the chain of communication,” said Smith.

Mason said his goal for the meeting is to come away with a plan for notifying everyone who’s affected when the highway closes. It’s not just the police, emergency services, and residents who suffer, he said. School buses are blocked and industrial park employees can’t get home during shift changes.

“It completely cripples us,” said Lakewood Schools Superintendent Jay Gault. “We just shut school down.”

No one is blaming anyone, said Smith, but communication must improve between all parties.

Ohio Department of Transportation District 5 Director Don Barber said flooding is somewhat predictable and he wondered if the Ohio Department of Natural Resources could inform ODOT District 5 when the Buckeye Lake water levels rise.

Smith said there’s some advance warning, but the South Fork of the Licking River and its tributaries also add to flooding problems.

Union Township Trustee John Slater said the recently constructed Seller’s Point spillway has contributed to flooding the last five or six years. ODNR plans to correct the problem, he said, which may help.

Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Larry Roseboro, Granville post commander, said closing the


highway is not a “true science.” Water levels can’t be accurately predicted and traffic accidents are completely unpredictable. A judgment call must be made.

ODOT District 5 officials have offered to send traffic control assistance, said Mason.

“We can’t stop the crazies,” said Barber, but ODOT can send people to assist with traffic flow. He said ODOT keeps a “playbook” describing how to handle alternative routes during highway closures.

Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb said all public entities affected by closure of I-70 should be notified electronically. Licking County Sheriff Captain Tom Lee said to notify the sheriff’s department dispatcher for assistance from the sheriff.

Dean agreed that US 40 is a great traffic alternative, but it must be managed correctly. Lee suggested having westbound traffic use US 40 and eastbound use another route so there’s at least one open lane of traffic through Hebron. “It’s still a mess,” he said, but one open lane would be an improvement.

As the meeting progressed it was obvious to everyone the main problem is communication; everyone should be notified at once when there’s a closure or an anticipated closure. It all begins with Jim Valentine, ODOT District 5 Licking County Manager, who decides to close the highway. Licking County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Walker is one of the first people Valentine calls. Walker said it’s possible for him to send electronic notification of a closure immediately to everyone who wants it.

Gault requested notification at least two hours ahead of closure so he can send students and staff home early enough not to add to the traffic problems. Even if it’s a false alarm, he said, he’d rather close school than take a chance that children would “sit in buses for six hours.”

Walker collected phone numbers from everyone wanting to be contacted and he plans to attempt a mass electronic notification test at 10 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 8.

ODOT representatives agreed to include the new procedure in the playbook for that section of I-70. A follow up meeting is set for 10 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 22, at the Hebron Municipal Complex.

Since January 2004, I-70 traffic was routed through Hebron Jan. 5, 2004; Jan. 6, 2005; and June 27, 2008 because of flooding near the Ohio 79 interchange, and traffic accidents closed the highway Oct. 6, 2005; Nov. 16, 2007; and June 20, 2008.

Mason said the meeting was successful. The names and phone numbers of most of the key people responsible to move traffic were collected and ODOT is creating a plan. “The county really stepped up to the plate,” he said. Mason credited Ohio Representative Dan Dodd (D – 91st District) with “pushing things along.”

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