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Final Decisions Due for I-71/I-76 Reconstruction in Ohio

Mon July 30, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Linda J. Hutchinson

“It’s always difficult to build a new highway in the middle of a city,” Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) spokesman Scott Varner said.

ODOT has been working on the widening of I-71 between Columbus and Cleveland since the late ’90s. When completed, the six-lane stretch of highway should have the capacity to carry traffic for the next 20 years — the design life of the highway. Completed portions of the overall project have cost $395 million.

One project under way includes the reconstruction of I-71 from 1 mi. south of SR 18 to 1 mi. north of the I-76 interchange. Work began in September 2005 to add a third lane in each direction, including the construction of noise walls at a cost of $44.6 million.

Another portion currently being reconstructed includes the addition of a third lane in each direction, from approximately 1 mi. north of Interstate 76 to 1 mi. south of Interstate 76. This project includes the modification of the I-71 and I-76 interchange at a cost of $70 million. The Ruhlin Company is the prime contractor. Completion is expected in July 2010.

On the city of Columbus’ wish list are at least six caps over I-70/71, at a cost of at least $53 million. Debate ensues on which caps to include and which splits offer the best configuration for protecting the historic districts and retaining business viability, while bridging the Downtown and nearby neighborhoods.

It would cost an estimated $53 million to $65 million to build the six caps. Caps are greenways and infrastructure built over the top of freeways, essentially widened overpasses. They could include trees, even buildings. Cost for a single cap ranges from an estimated $3 million to $12 million. The more grand, the more expensive.

“ODOT and Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission [MORPC] have made a financial commitment for caps,” said Michelle May, ODOT spokeswoman. “I would expect the city and county also would make a financial commitment in the future.”

“Some caps are more expensive than others. Some have a higher priority, according to the public,” said Mark Kelsey, the city’s public-service director. “Obviously, we will factor that into our decision-making.”

The cost for a single cap like the existing one over I-670 that bridges Downtown and the Short North was approximately $1.3 million.

Approximately $22 million is committed to the caps: $10 million from ODOT and $12 million from the MORPC committee. As additional caps are added to the plan, the total cost could easily reach $100 million. Debate continues on who, or what, entities should share in the cost.

City and state officials and others think the caps will better connect nearby neighborhoods, such as the Near East Side, German Village and the Brewery District, with Downtown. A dozen potential sites have been studied.

“You really need a developer who has lived in your city and loves your city,” said Jack Lucks of Continental Real Estate Cos. and developer of the I-670 cap.

He said the cap has paid off for him, and he sees potential for investors in the I-70/71 caps connecting Downtown with high-density neighborhoods.

“Going up North High Street, you have no idea there is a freeway there,” he said. “We have gotten back the connecting link between the Short North, Victorian Village and the Italian Village, and that helps a lot.”

“I think there is a fairly strong consensus on what capping we would like to do,” said Robert Milbourne, president of the Columbus Partnership, a civic-improvement group made up of central Ohio business leaders who are expecting private developer support. “The remaining issue is funding it.”

“I think we have a very appealing argument to some Downtown developers that the caps will benefit Downtown development, and therefore they should consider being a piece of this pie,” Milbourne said. “But realistically, I don’t think it is a large piece.”

“It is not that we don’t want the caps or desire the positive effects it can have on the neighborhood,” said Rick Redmon, president of Olde Towne East Neighborhood Association. “Just the cost of staying in business can be daunting.”

Redmon, a lifelong Near East Side resident, isn’t sure the responsibility falls to those who work and live in the area.

“One can’t forget the history of what I-71 North did to the Near East Side in the first place when it was first put in,” Redmon said. “There are many who feel, me included, that in all fairness, the state and the city and whomever should really want to correct the past wrong,” he said. “I don’t think anyone intended to kill the Near East Side, but nobody disputes that it did happen as a result of I-70.”

The department has $525 million earmarked to rebuild I-70 through Downtown and I-71 north to I-670. The plan is to expand the number of lanes on both stretches and eliminate much of the confusion and congestion caused by traffic entering and exiting the highway.

A state loan to the city is a possible source of money. The city also hopes developers and the county will contribute.

Where to place the I-71/I-70 splits also are open to debate. Although community meetings, surveys, and input from citizen groups has been taken into account, ODOT will make the final decision. The purpose, they say, is to untangle the traffic snarl that has been caused by the overlap of I-70 and I-71.

According to Sue Hagan, This Week Staff Writer at the Columbus Dispatch, a six-month ODOT study has determined that using Mound and Fulton streets as one-way connector streets in the I-70/71 reconfiguration is a better option than using Fulton Street and Livingston Avenue.

There are three major factors behind that recommendation, said Michelle May, ODOT program manager:

First, and perhaps the deciding factor, she said, is that using Livingston Avenue would mean encroaching too deeply into the Brewery District and German Village, which are on the National Register of Historic Places and protected by federal law.

In the same vein, Columbus Public Schools’ Africentric School is eligible for the National Register, and is in the path of a Livingston corridor.

“Federal law does give special protection to historic districts,” said May. “It requires agencies like ODOT to avoid historical districts if there is a feasible alternative.”

Second, the intersections along the cross streets are spaced farther apart under the Mound alternative, providing better traffic flow.

The third reason that ODOT prefers the Mound-Fulton alternative is that it could lead to greater economic development downtown.

“City council has said for the past two years that economic development should be considered,” said May.

She also has said that a city analysis shows that if Mound Street becomes a through corridor, it would spur more jobs and tax revenue.

There are issues with each recommendation. For instance, residents of the Miranova and Waterford Tower condominiums oppose a new ramp that would be built nearby to connect Mound Street with the freeway. They also worry about noise and pollution.

May said that once ODOT makes its final recommendation, the agency will work with neighbors on their issues.

“Because ramps at Third and Fourth [streets] will be removed, Front is a major gateway from the west,” said Darren Meyer, a senior associate with MSI, a landscape architecture and urban planning company located in the Brewery District. He said that downtown businesses have pushed for distinctive architectural treatments at the exits to Front and Spring streets, and Parsons Avenue, to play up their roles as entrances to the city.

At the same time, Meyer said, the Front Street crossing itself — and those of the 12 other streets that cross the split — could be improved on a pedestrian scale. Within the ODOT budget, $37 million has been earmarked for streetscape improvements to the crossings.

“When you cross over the freeway right now, it’s unpleasant,” said Meyer, during an interview after the meeting. “There’s noise, wind and the views aren’t good.”

“[Improvements] will make that gulf, which is pretty barren and noisy, more pleasant,” said Meyer. The plan also calls for supports to be made strong enough to support future freeway caps, which could be built if funding becomes available.

Whatever decisions are to be made, all involved believe the work should begin soon at what will be major gateways into the Downtown area. Each entity believes pedestrian access should be improved.

ODOT continues to work with citizen groups, developers, design firms, and government entities as the time nears to make its final decision.

Columbus City Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, who leads the council’s development committee, said she appreciates that the state is working closely with neighborhoods.

“They don’t have to,” she said. “They can just go ahead and do this thing.”

There are an additional three projects remaining to complete the widening between Columbus and Cleveland: the southern portion between U.S. 36 in Delaware, going through Morrow County to the Richland County line. Total cost is estimated to be $70 million and the projects are slated to begin in 2012, 2013 and 2014. CEG

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