I was lucky enough to be asked to emcee the June 13, 2008, lunch at Parkersburg High School, which preceeded the opening ceremonies on the new Blennerhassett Island Bridge. The luncheon was hosted, jointly, by the Chamber of Commerce of the Mid-Ohio Valley and the Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce.
As the 2008 chairman of the board for the Chamber of Commerce of the Mid-Ohio Valley, I was also asked to make a few remarks.
In those remarks I made some of the following observations, which I'd like to expand upon here.
When the Corridor D project was first envisioned a half-century ago, gasoline cost about 15-20 cents a gallon. Now it costs more than 20 times that amount. This poses a real challenge for the Mid-Ohio Valley, which is hoping to see increased tourism and commerce as a direct result of this new road and bridge.
We expect that a lot of gasoline stations, convenience stores and even hotels/motels spring up along this new route. That will be a very good thing. But how do the cities of Parkersburg and Belpre, get those motorists -- who are looking for the fastest, safest and most economical routes east and west -- to get OFF the highway and spend time (and money) here?
I suggest that the communities must re-invent themselves.
For the past 50 years, the downtown streets have been clogged with tractor-trailers, which have slowed down traffic, made street-crossings more dangerous, and have torn up our streets. From Main Street in Belpre, across the Belpre-Parkersburg Bridge, on Ann, Fourth, Green and Fifth streets in Parkersburg, the large trucks have lumbered along.
Now, we hope that most of those trucks will be using the new Route 50.
This gives Parkersburg and Belpre the opportunity -- and I would suggest the mandate -- to make their communities more pedestrian-friendly, more merchant-friendly and even more bicycle-friendly. We have to do a better job of creating and marketing the tourist locations and events that people might want to see or participate in. And when they take the time to get off the highway, they need to see communities that make them feel safe and welcome.
As life-style and fuel-economy issues gain more importance, we need to make sure they see and witness communities where the living is good.
In the past couple of years, I have taken a renewed interst in bicycling. Thanks to some good friends, I've gotten in tune with some of the issues facing two-wheeled travelers in the Mid-Ohio Valley. I was happy to see that the new Blennerhassett Island Bridge has at least a six-foot wide berm, that bicyclists can use. I wish there were MORE space, but just as important as the amount of space, is how often that space will be swept to keep it free from the glass, metal and other debris that are real dangers for bicyclists.
I did not mention this in my remarks Friday, but I think that one of the SEVEN lanes on Grand Central Avenue between Vienna and Parkersburg should be set aside strictly for bicyclists! Some of you may remember that when that road was first widened, the curb lanes were marked FOR EMERGENCY STOPPING ONLY. Over the years, more and more "right turn" options were added until, finally, the entire curb lanes were opened up for traffic.
These curb lanes, while perhaps relieving some of the traffic back-ups, are killers. There have been numerous accidents, where a motorist will (un-wisely) try to take a left turn across all THREE on-coming lanes, when he or she can really only see the cars coming in the inner two lanes. Then, suddenly, a vehicle will appear in the third (curb) lane (often travelling at a high rate of speed) and plow into the turning vehicle. This has resulted in at least one death -- a woman trying to turn left to go up the 31st Street hill several years on her birthday, as I recall.
There are many people who live in Vienna who work in Parkersburg, either at the hospitals, Public Debt, Mountain State Blue Cross - Blue Shield or elsewhere. Lots of these folks have pretty much sedentary jobs, in that they sit at desks for large portions of their day. SOME of these people might enjoy the opportunity (and savings) of riding bikes to work, since the road between the two communities is pretty much flat. But commuting by bicycle (or sometimes, even by car!) on Grand Central Avenue can be dangerous.
Making the eastern curb lane along Grand Central Avenue just for bikes -- and putting up a serious barrier to prevent the encroachment of cars and trucks into that lane -- would begin to send the signal that this valley is getting serious about fuel conservation and the use of bicycles as a "renewable" energy source.
I've recently been reading about Portland, Oregon, and the way that that city has become extyremely bicycle-friendly, and how much of the city has been made to accomodate bicycle commuters in an effort to make a better use of downtown space, to reduce pollution, to help people save money on gasoline, and perhaps even get a little healthier. Now Parkersburg is NOT Portland, Oregon. There are many more white collar jobs centralized in the downtown area of Portland than there are here. BUT, those kinds of efforts are scale-able.
I was happy to hear Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell accept my "challenge" to begin re-making our cities to meet the opportunities and problems posed by the new US Route 50. And once we see the impact of the reduced truck traffic in Belpre and Parkersburg, I believe we can create some opportunities that will make our communities more attractive not only for us, but for those people who stop by for a look.