I-70/I-71 Caps in Downtown Columbus Remain in Budget

Sat May 30, 2009 - Midwest Edition
Linda J. Hutchinson



The Ohio Department of Transportation and the City of Columbus have been wrangling with plans to widen I-70/I-71, add gateway ramps to better configure splits to other freeways, and to build a minimum of six “caps” over the interstate for several years.

Commonly known as “the downtown split,” the I-70/I-71 South Innerbelt Corridor Project is “a multi-faceted plan to reduce congestion in downtown Columbus along the convergence of Interstate 70 and Interstate 71,” according to an ODOT press release. “In an effort to reduce traffic and accidents, as well as remove the confusion of getting on or off the freeway, the downtown split project will add lanes to the freeway in both directions, widen Mound and Fulton streets and convert them to one-way collector/distributor streets, and move the current on/off-ramps to facilitate better traffic flow.” The project was originally expected to cost around $800 million with work to begin in 2011.

The South Innerbelt Corridor Project is a part of the ongoing Columbus to Cleveland “major modifications and improvements to I-71 project” begun in 1998 and continued under former Governor Bob Taft’s 10-year, $5 billion, Jobs and Progress plan. The plan was developed to supply $500 million annually to ODOT for new construction and revitalization projects designed to ease freeway congestion, improve road safety, and connect rural regions of Ohio. The 2003 plan estimated the creation of over 4,000 highway construction jobs.

ODOT now estimates the project to untangle the overlap of I-70 and I-71 could reach $1 billion and has earmarked $525 million for construction east of the Scioto River. The remaining $475 million will be used to rebuild the I-70/I-71 and S.R. 315 interchange in the downtown area, with an anticipated 2015 start date.

Regardless of federal stimulus monies that may reach ODOT, belt tightening is the order of the day. Originally, ODOT had unveiled its vision for caps as “grand gateways” at 12 locations, with cost estimates up to $110 million. In 2007, it was estimated the six caps under development, of the 12 on Columbus’ wish list, had a price tag of $65 million. A lagging economy and budget constraints have impacted decisions for improving the area for the benefit of motorists, nearby businesses, and historic neighborhoods.

Caps may include greenways, enhanced pedestrian facilities, trees, and even buildings. Debates have ensued over which splits offered the best configuration for protecting the historic districts that line both sides of the interstate while retaining business viability by bridging the Downtown and nearby neighborhoods. Caps may be designed as widened overpasses, “creating a seamless transition between neighborhoods by adding businesses or parks to either side of the current overpass,” according to ODOT

Existing caps used as examples are located at High Street/I-670, which includes restaurants and shops, and at the Short North neighborhood on High Street. “The other (proposed) caps would not necessarily be as elaborate because of the expense,” said Scott Varner, ODOT spokesman.

“The reason why these (six) have been chosen as priorities is two-fold,” said Mary Carran Webster, assistant public service director, adding that “ideally, all 12 would be completed if funding were sufficient”, according to an article published in the Columbus Dispatch. “One, is connectivity — connecting the neighborhoods,” she said. “In these cases…neighborhoods were torn apart by the freeway. Second is the opportunity for economic development. These six present the greatest opportunity,” she said.

In 2007, at odds with proposed plans were some who have felt the impact of previous decisions. “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,” said Rick Redmon, then-president of Olde Towne East Neighborhood Association. “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.”

Funding for the project comes from several sources including the state of Ohio, City of Columbus, and Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

“Baseline” streetscape improvements are planned to all 12 crossings under the current budget. Sidewalks will be widened and buffers to protect pedestrians will be installed. Support structures for future caps, which are awaiting funding, will also be built.

“District 3 is making great strides to complete the last leg of its I-71 corridor widening project and the new I-76 westbound to I-71 southbound ramp opened to traffic this May 22. At that time, ODOT had ’peeled off’ the majority of the traffic going through this interchange and be able to focus on the other ramps at the interchange throughout the rest of 2009. The project is still on track to be completed in July, 2010,” said Brian Stacy, ODOT district 3 public information officer.

Currently under construction in Medina County, major modifications are being made to the I-71/I-76 interchange and widening of I-71 to include a third lane in each direction from approximately 0.5 mile north of Leroy Road (TR-57) to one mile north of the I-76 interchange. The project is scheduled to be completed on July 31, 2010.