I-70/71 Split Modernization: Need? Or Wasteful Spending?

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If you travel Interstate 70/71 in Columbus often enough you know there’s a lot of weaving that go on between exits. So the Ohio department of Transportation wants to redesign the split and cut the number of accidents…at a cost that surpasses $1.5 billion. WOSU reports, though, that the plan has some critics who say it’s a waste of money.

The Ohio Department of Transportation says this stretch of interstate, known as the 70/71 split, is one of the most accident prone in the state. On this day, it’s just after rush hour, and traffic is moving along fairly smoothly. You see few brake lights. Although some people trying to get on 70 will have to cross several lanes to reach their exit, which can be a pretty dangerous task.

So ODOT wants to fix this problem. It’s a complex project with a price tag of $1.7 billion and construction will not likely start until 2013. Here are the basics of the project: the ramps used to get in and out of downtown will be consolidated; more lanes will be added in each direction of 70 and 71; and Mound and Fulton Streets will be widened and used as feeder streets into downtown.

ODOT’s Scott Varner said these steps will relieve congestion, reduce weaving and increase safety.

“The longer we wait to solve the problem, the more it grows,” he said.

ODOT said there were more than 270 crashes on the split last year. One was fatal. While most people agree the split needs improvement, others say the project is wasteful and will hurt downtown economically. A Central Ohio traffic engineer is very skeptical. Because the engineer does work with ODOT and requested anonymity, we’re altering the voice.

“I look at this project and see this as something of a Shakespearean tragedy. I can see the train wreck coming,” the engineer said.

The engineer said the new design will benefit people who just want to get through downtown. But for those seeking to go downtown that’s another story.

“I do think it has a potential of starving downtown, the greater the impediment that you create for people to go downtown, you make it a few minutes longer to get there, and people are less likely to travel downtown. Right now the design is set up so that you will be able to drive through downtown and you will get a lovely view of downtown, but you can’t get there,” the engineer said. The engineer said getting on and off the interstate downtown will be difficult. And added that people who casually use the split likely will miss their exit and have to backtrack adding frustration. ODOT’s Varner disagreed.

“It will not change your ability to get downtown,” Varner said.

He said the changes will make downtown more accessible.

“Really what the plan calls for is making the entrance and exit of downtown a lot easier for commuters because you don’t get bogged down in those areas like a third and fourth streets there on the south part of downtown,” he said. ODOT sites congestion as a big reason for doing the project. But numbers provided by the transportation department to WOSU show a different story. Since I-670 was completed in 2003 average daily traffic totals in the split actually have decreased…slightly – about 2-and-a-half percent.

Varner admits 670 relieved some congestion on the split but…

“Not to a point where it brought it under capacity. Again, we are still at or above capacity for that area.”

I-70 was built to hold at capacity 120,000 vehicles. According to ODOT figures, as many as 144,000 cars use part of the split each day.

Cincinnati completed a similar project in 2001 when it redid the Fort Washington Way – the freeway that joins I-71 and I-75 near the professional sports stadiums. John Deatrick headed up that project and said they faced similar issues like weaving and partially closed interchanges. He said their project, even though it tripled in price by the end, was a success. And he says Columbus needs a similar project.

“I know you’ve really got some issues, some really severe safety issues up there, in just driving that system. And I’m afraid it does have to be completely be redone. It isn’t a matter of making small tweaks,” Deatrick said.

WOSU asked ODOT if there was a cheaper, easier way to solve the split’s problem…could extra signage and some ramp closures do the job? ODOT’s Varner underscored what Deatrick said.

“I think it would be great if we could find just a signage solution, but reality tells us that’s not the case,” Varner said.

Another of the project’s critics is Greater Ohio’s co-director Gene Krebs. Krebs’ wonders if the plan is financially sustainable. He thinks a mass transit rail line would be more cost effective than a highway modernization.

“I think at the end of the day I think we need to think about is the purpose of our transportation system to move cars? Or is it to move people? And what’s the answer? I think it should be to move people. And I think we need to predicate everything on that one thing. Are we moving people?”

Work on the project is slated to start in 2013 and be completed in 2017. ODOT plans to use a mix of state and federal dollars to pay for it.