Expanded U.S. 24 open today after decades of struggle

200 gather near Waterville to celebrate Fort to Port project

  • Sue-Westendorf-shows-off-some-of-the-buttons

    Sue Westendorf shows off some of the buttons she brought to hand out at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ohio's final portion of U.S. 24.

    the blade/dave zapotosky
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  • Sue Westendorf shows off some of the buttons she brought to hand out at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ohio's final portion of U.S. 24.
    Sue Westendorf shows off some of the buttons she brought to hand out at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ohio's final portion of U.S. 24.

    When the Fort to Port Improvement Organization arranged to produce a batch of buttons promoting construction of a U.S. 24 expressway several decades ago, Sue Westendorf squirreled away several dozen of them to pass around the day the road was finished.

    That day arrived Tuesday.

    "I don't want to take them home -- we don't need them anymore," Ms. Westendorf, the retired director of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, said cheerfully while handing out "Support Fort to Port 24" buttons to anyone who would take them before and after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new road's east end.

    Ms. Westendorf was among about 200 area dignitaries, past and present, who gathered atop the flyover bridge that carries the new U.S. 24 over the old one's westbound lanes just outside Waterville to celebrate the culmination of a half-century of planning and, in some cases, controversy.

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    Jerry Wray, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, recalled U.S. 24 being on a "promises list" that aides to then-Ohio Gov. George Voinovich had drafted during the 1990 gubernatorial election campaign -- a list that fell to Mr. Wray when he became the department's chief for the first time the following January.

    "It never occurred to me back then that I would be back to cut the ribbon on this project," said Mr. Wray, who became department director for a second time after Gov. John Kasich took office.

    Spectators take turns posing with a ceremonial ribbon at the event, which drew about 200 dignitaries, including many who fought for decades to build an expressway.
    Spectators take turns posing with a ceremonial ribbon at the event, which drew about 200 dignitaries, including many who fought for decades to build an expressway.

    The $169 million, 21.5-mile, four-lane highway between the north side of Waterville and the east end of U.S. 24's Napoleon bypass replaces 23.5 miles of two-lane roadway notorious for serious, and often fatal, crashes involving big trucks.

    The westbound lanes opened at 6 a.m. today, and the eastbound lanes were open by 8 a.m., according to a ODOT spokesman.

    'New era of safety'

    "Today is the beginning of a new era of safety on U.S. 24," Mr. Wray said Tuesday. Department projects' results are measured in safety value and time saved, he said, "and this project is a good result" for both.

    U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said the new road will serve as a vital economic-development link in an area that has a unique concentration of agricultural land and fresh water, while its opening occurs "in the full knowledge" of those who died in crashes on old U.S. 24.

    "Know that, in your time and generation, you did something great not just for your region, but something great for the national interstate transportation system," Miss Kaptur said.

    After two rounds of ribbon-cutting, first by elected officials and Mr. Wray, then by local transportation department leaders from over the years, Mr. Wray invited members of the general public to participate in their own ribbon-cutting for the road. Among the first to do so were three baton twirlers from the Anthony Wayne High School marching band, which performed before and after the dedication.

    Hundreds of people turned out later for the public's only planned opportunity to walk, run, or bike on the new highway before its opening to motor traffic.

    That is scheduled for today, starting with the westbound lanes at the Waterville end at about 6 a.m. Interchange ramps at State Rts. 64, 295, and 109 will open thereafter.

    Last to open will be the eastbound connection from existing U.S. 24 to the new roadway at the Napoleon end, because that requires significant barrier-wall relocation, transportation department officials said. U.S. 24's opening east of Napoleon will complete the Ohio portion of the so-called Fort to Port Highway, running 77 miles between metro Toledo and metro Fort Wayne, Ind. The Indiana Department of Transportation expects to finish the last piece at its end, between Indiana Rt. 101 and I-469 on Fort Wayne's outskirts, by Dec. 1.

    Total spending on the project in the two states is about $580 million -- $410 million of it in Ohio.

    A long journey

    Proposals to improve U.S. 24 date to the early 1960s, but during that decade only portions were built: four-lane bypasses around Napoleon and partway past Defiance, plus an arrow-straight, two-lane road with right-of-way wide enough for two more lanes between those two cities.

    In 1969, the then-Ohio Department of Highways proposed widening U.S. 24 to four lanes through Waterville and along the Maumee River instead of bypassing Waterville, which aroused immediate and widespread protest. Instead, U.S. 24 was widened to four lanes only from Dutch Road east to I-475.

    Jamie Black, a Waterville Gas Co. executive who chaired or co-chaired the Fort to Port group for the better part of three decades, said U.S. 24 returned to the local forefront in 1985, when then-Mayor Chuck Peyton ordered a study for solutions to that community's growing problem with truck congestion in its center.

    "Thanks for taking up 27 years of my life," Mr. Black playfully chided Mr. Peyton, who was one of several Waterville mayors at the ceremony, before promising that the ribbon-cutting would be his "absolute last formal function" related to U.S. 24.

    Deadly past

    Besides the Waterville congestion, U.S. 24 became known for gruesome head-on collisions, often involving motorists who either strayed across the center line or made ill-advised attempts to pass one or more of the tractor-trailers that plied the highway around the clock.

    One particularly troublesome area west of Defiance became known as Dead Man's Curve, and The Blade editorially dubbed the entire road as "the Killway."

    But as building a new U.S. 24 across the countryside gained planning momentum, it also attracted dissent from rural property owners who decried proposed construction across rich agricultural soil and the commercial development likely to follow.

    Critics unsuccessfully urged ODOT to upgrade U.S. 24, possibly with passing lanes several miles long as Michigan has done on some highways.

    Others suggested the elimination of tolls on the Ohio Turnpike that could attract some of U.S. 24's longer-distance truck traffic to go that way instead.

    Construction began anew in 2006 with work to extend the four-lane Defiance bypass three miles to what is now the Baltimore Street interchange.

    Widening the Defiance-Napoleon section from two lanes to four was finished in 2008, the same year that work began on the Napoleon-Waterville piece, starting from the Napoleon end. Ohio's westernmost section, from Baltimore Street to Indiana 101, was built between June, 2007, and October, 2009.

    Napoleon-Waterville originally was scheduled to open early last month, but was delayed nearly three months by persistent rain during 2011 -- the wettest year on record in Toledo -- that bogged down earth-moving for the landmark interchange at the Waterville end.

    Along with sporting one of Ms. Westendorf's buttons, Waterville resident Diana Waugh attended the ceremony wearing a "Death No More on 24" T-shirt that she said was produced during the early 1990s for a road rally, as well as to promote construction of a new U.S. 24.

    "I'm phenomenally excited," she said. "There were times we thought we would never quite pull it off, but boy, does it look good."

    Lori Brodie, Waterville's current mayor, conceded being a relative newcomer -- by the time she moved to Waterville in 1998, Fort to Port had largely become a "when?" proposition, not an "if" -- but said she too is glad to see it finished.

    "It has been a very long project for the people out here," Ms. Brodie said. "Everyone wants it open."

    While old U.S. 24 between Napoleon and Defiance became State Rt. 424 when the new road was built between those cities five decades ago, ODOT plans to "vacate" the old road east of Napoleon to the ownership of Henry and Lucas counties, as it did with the stretch west of Defiance that now belongs to Defiance and Paulding counties.

    The renaming of Lucas County's portion will be the topic of a county commissioners' hearing Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. at One Government Center in Toledo.

    Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.