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Ohio Expressway Stays Slim, Trim During $280M Overhaul

Sat June 10, 2000 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

Bigger is not always better — or safer, according to city planners in Cincinnati. This year Cincinnati Bengal’s football fans will be able to drive to the opening game of the season along a new slimmer, trimmer — but safer — Fort Washington Way. The straighter, narrower road will take up 14 fewer acres than the old highway.

The city’s construction manager, Don Gindling, estimates that the width of the passage is “shrinking from about 600 feet to 300 feet to allow for development along the riverfront.”

Currently this three-quarter-mile stretch of highway between the Brent Spence Bridge and the Lytle Tunnel connects Interstates 75 and 71 in a “concrete canyon” of ramps and highway lanes that run parallel to the Ohio River as they separate downtown Cincinnati from its riverfront. The improvements aim to reconnect the city with its western riverfront, while providing a simpler, safer, more aesthetic travel way.

But the project seeks to accomplish even more, including adding space for retail and housing.

Long-Term Planning

The initial design concept was created four years ago. It calls for a “public square” between Vine and Walnut streets to serve as the centerpiece of the city’s newly designed riverfront, according to city planners. The space could include a reflecting pool and be surrounded by trees that would shield it from the two sports stadiums on the riverfront and other, future development, according to Don Carter of Urban Design Associates, the Pittsburgh, PA, firm hired by the city and county to write a riverfront development plan.

Carter believes that developing the public space as a park will make it an anchor for the entire riverfront. “At least you’re sending the message that it’s not going to be surface parking for all time,” he said. “If we establish this grid, many things could occur on these other blocks over generations.”

Proposed development for those other blocks along the riverfront includes the two sports stadiums (football and baseball), the Underground Railroad museum, an urban entertainment district between the new Paul Brown Stadium and the Roebling Suspension Bridge, and possibly several hundred housing units atop stores, restaurants and business buildings. Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls said that establishing housing units between Fort Washington Way and the river would ensure the survival of new businesses the city hopes to attract to the riverfront.

City administrators claim the completion of the Fort Washington Way project is the key to the development of the entire riverfront.


The two-year, $280-million expressway overhaul that started in July 1998 draws funding and support from many sources. The state of Ohio is contributing $80 million, with more than $50 million coming from federal sources and more than $30 million from local sources. Typically, the state takes the lead financing role in major road projects.

Several organizations, including Metro, TANK, ARTIMIS, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and Downtown Cincinnati have chipped in to ease traffic woes during construction. Metro has a $3.1-million grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation to create four “park ’n ride” lots and Downtown Cincinnati Inc. has developed parking guides for downtown drivers. Remote parking and shuttle buses for the construction workers has been provided to help ease downtown parking congestion.

John Deatrick, project engineer for the city, said the plan got put on the fast track when it attracted the attention of federal and state regulators. “There seems to be nothing but support for it,” he said.

Proceeding faster than any highway project in greater Cincinnati history, the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way kicked off with a ceremony attended by Ohio Gov. George Voinovich.

To further speed progress on the project dubbed the “Connection to the Future,” city and traffic planners managed to compress several steps that traditionally take many months to complete. Rather than wait through months of red tape, planners brought all the regulators to town, showed them computer models and received approval in two days — an unheard of swiftness.

Jim Duane, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, said, “There’s no comparison with any other projects.”

Determined not to slow construction on the new Reds stadium, the city placed highest priority on the renovation project, pledging to finish reconstruction by August 2000, in time for the first game at the new Paul Brown Stadium.


Gindling said that the work was divided into separate contracts for various aspects of the job and let to bid. Prime contractors within a wide radius serve as general contractors for the various jobs. He noted that the original goal of employing 30 percent minority contractors was reduced by the court to 11 to 12 percent when it was challenged by the Ohio Contractors.

Traffic Snarls

Although the traffic-maintenance plan is keeping two lanes of traffic open in each direction throughout construction, the inevitable delays and traffic jams have occurred. However, as Gindling said, “The city has done extensive PR to let people know about the detours and delays, and they’ve done a great job re-routing traffic. There’s been minimal impact on the city.”

Literature, maps, a Web site, airport handouts and announcements, TV and radio monitors updating the changing detours — all serve to alleviate as much of the pain of road construction as possible. Local businesses have granted flexible scheduling to decrease rush hour traffic, while car pools and Metro riders have increased.

City events such as Reds baseball games, Bengals football games, Tall Stacks, Riverfest and other downtown events continue on regular schedules. “Our objective is to make sure the downtown stays open,” said Fred Craig, a chief consultant on the project.

Jeff Wallace, contracts administrator for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the construction management company, said that the longest delays occurred at the beginning of construction as commuters adjusted to changes.

Better Traffic Flow

Since Fort Washington Way opened in 1961, the traffic has quickly outgrown the highway. Ramp additions through the years have made the highway dangerous. Craig calls merging onto the highway a game of dodge ball because “you have entrance ramps that jump right into the high-speed lanes.”

Deputy City Manager Richard Mendes said the project jumped to the top of the state’s funding list because of its accident rate.

The reconstruction will squeeze eight interstate highway lanes in a narrower trench.

The design separates local traffic from interstate traffic, placing exit and entrance ramps at each end of Fort Washington Way to eliminate dangerous merging.

The reconstruction narrows the downtown highway by nearly half and introduces a pair of one-way boulevards to take traffic into the central business district.

“The miracle of Fort Washington Way is getting more highway into less space,” said Deatrick. “The way that is being done is the exit ramps to downtown were pushed out to the east and west ends so you put all your outflow traffic onto Second and Third streets. That eliminates all the weaves, the left-hand exit ramps and all those crazy things.”

As construction commenced, lanes were restricted and traffic diverted to local streets as familiar ramps and bridges were demolished. A temporary bridge extended the Roebling Suspension Bridge from northern Kentucky to Third Street in Cincinnati, giving pedestrians and vehicles a direct link between the two sides of the river.

With many Ft. Washington Way ramps closing permanently, the boulevard route became the quickest way around downtown. Central Avenue between Sixth Street and Mehring Way provides relief for slowdowns while only one exit (Pete Rose Way) remains open during construction.

Which is why projects are under way to improve access from Interstates 71 and 75 to downtown. A new northbound exit on I-75 will feed into Fifth Street and a new southbound exit for I-71 will lead onto Eggleston Avenue via the I-471 ramp. “We knew we had to do that or people just wouldn’t be able to get downtown,” said Deatrick. Those exits will lead onto the boulevard route.

Drivers headed north on I-75 will exit at Pete Rose Way or use a new $1-million ramp exiting onto Fifth Street. The ramp was designed by William Martin, director of planning and development at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to ease congestion as visitors travel from the airport to downtown hotels.

Five new bridges over Fort Washington Way link the riverfront with downtown.

“Currently, you take your life in your hands if you try to walk that,” said Deatrick.

“Pedestrians will feel like they’re still walking downtown,” said Mendes. “It will be kind of a seamless experience.”

Other changes include a new two-way overpass for vehicles and pedestrians that links the suspension bridge to Third Street. Because of the new overpass, Levee Way no longer connects to Main and Vine streets. Instead, it takes commuters to Columbia Parkway and Pete Rose Way.

New traffic lights have been installed. A sidewalk near Cinergy Field has been widened to create a T-intersection at the end of the bridge.

Where traffic once traveled from the bridge and curved to the right to funnel into a myriad of ramps, drivers will meet an intersection. They can turn right onto a new two-way road called Levee Way that will lead to ramps for Columbia Parkway, northbound I-71 and Main Street, or they can turn left to Vine Street.

Bumps Along the Road

Although the Fort Washington Way project is now on schedule and on budget, it has occasionally fallen behind. Late deliveries of steel supplies, additional projects — such as new floodwalls and the installation of sewer pipes — and Tall Stacks ’99 contributed to a seven-week delay last summer.

The city encountered many violations when it banned vehicles wider than seven feet on the expressway. Normally lanes are 10 to 11 feet wide, but they were narrowed to 8 to 9 feet on Fort Washington Way.

Also, although not in the original plan, westbound Fort Washington Way had to be closed. “The construction is more complicated than we thought,” Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey said. The new road is narrower and at a different grade. The closure allowed crews the time and space to make bridge connections at the end of the reconfigured expressway, build a relocated floodwall and two-tiered Second Street, which will include a transit center for cars, buses and light rail and commuter rail.

Gindling said he’s had up to 500 people working around the clock six or even seven days a week to get the majority of the work completed by Aug. 2.

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