If you subscribe to the political belief that "You can't fight City Hall" -- City Hall used figuratively for all government -- then you need to have a chat with Austintown Fire Chief Andrew Frost, who led a long battle against the Ohio Department of Transportation, and won.
At the heart of the dispute was the protection of Meander Reservoir as a source of drinking water for 300,000 users in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Frost and other Mahoning Valley officials made it clear to ODOT that public health had to be the driving force behind any proposal to replace the Interstate 80 bridges over the reservoir. Simply constructing a causeway or two three-lane spans to replace the existing two two-lane structures was unacceptable, they said -- over and over again.
Finally, their perseverance paid dividends. It should be noted, however, that the fire chief and others in the Valley, including Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, were on solid ground when they argued that public health had to be foremost in the minds of those designing the new bridges.
And so it was last week that Frost gave thumbs up to the $75.1 million project, which will include bridges that are significantly wider than the existing ones, with a 10-foot to 12-foot shoulder for each, a staging area for emergency vehicles at the end of one bridge and a chemical spill containment system along the side of the bridges.
The spill containment system will provide controlled drainage so that any chemical spilled would flow into a ditch, giving emergency crews 30 minutes to contain it before the chemical filtered into the reservoir.
Point of contention
The threat to the drinking water source has been the point of contention for local officials.
But with the solution proposed by ODOT, local worries have been alleviated.
"If there's a chemical spill, it's not going to run into our drinking water," Chief Frost said last week. "That's all we wanted."
But there's another concession made by the state agency that should reassure residents of the Mahoning Valley: the plan calls for the construction of a 750-foot access road from Turner Road. The road would enable emergency vehicles from Austintown's main fire station on state Route 46 to get to Interstate 80 in about three minutes taking Silica Road to Turner Road and then the access road. Without this shortcut, the response time to an emergency on the Meander Reservoir bridges would be significantly longer because of the possible congestion on Route 46 and I-80.
"I may not have won all the battles, but I think I won the war," Chief Frost told a Vindicator reporter last week.
From our vantage point, having closely followed the twists and turns of this project, we believe that Frost and other Valley officials are certainly deserving of praise for their persistence, intelligent arguments and their refusal to bend on the issue of public health and safety.
ODOT officials also should be recognized for taking seriously the concerns expressed by area legislators, local government officials, community leaders and residents. It is possible to fight City Hall, and win -- albeit occasionally.