Expanded highways, shipping and smart transit move Columbus forward.
Nick Gill has had a front seat when it comes to viewing all the changes with central Ohio's highway system over the past 25 years.
As a transportation expert at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission during that time, Gill has seen the region's interstates widened, interchanges added or overhauled and new highways opened. All were aimed at improving traffic flow in a metropolitan area marked by booming residential and business growth, especially in suburbs around the Interstate 270 Outerbelt.
“The growth has definitely been the driver,” Gill says, adding that's been due in part to central Ohio's diverse economy and the so-called “Columbus Way” in which local governments and businesses collaborate on transportation and economic development issues.
He remembers all that went into building new interchanges to serve the Easton Town Center and Polaris developments as they began to take shape in the late 1990s and at the turn of the 21st Century. Easton, plus growth in nearby New Albany and development in adjoining western Licking County, also spurred construction of a four-lane section of Route 161 from New Albany to Granville that was completed in 2010.
Much construction has also taken place along Route 33 between Canal Winchester and Lancaster, including major interchanges at Diley Road and the village of Carroll and a bypass around Lancaster.
Inside the Outerbelt, a four-lane leg of Interstate 670 was completed in 1993 when the section opened between Downtown and I-270 just east of Port Columbus. And I-270 has undergone numerous lane expansions and interchange improvements, especially around the Route 23, Route 315 and Route 33 intersections along the Outerbelt's northern rim.
While the interstate and state highway systems have remained the principal mode of moving people and goods from Point A to Point B, there also has been wider use of the Central Ohio Transit Authority's bus system and sweeping expansion of the region's bike path.
Additionally, Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services have cut into the taxi business, and there have numerous discussions about passenger rail (none have borne fruit yet). Now, Smart Columbus is looking for the next big things in transportation, including an expansion of electric cars and introduction of self-driving vehicles.
There have been a lot of changes at Columbus' international airport, too, including its name. The sprawling complex on the city's East Side became John Glenn Columbus International Airport in 2016.
In addition, numerous airport facility improvements and expansions have kept pace with the region's growth. Bigger ones include a $25 million terminal renovation in 1998; $92 million in improvements in 2000; a new airport traffic control tower in 2004; a realignment of International Gateway in 2008 for better access to I-670 and parking; commissioning of a new $140 million runway in 2013; and an $80 million, multiphase terminal renovation completed in 2016.
Central Ohio's other major air facility—Rickenbacker International Airport along the edge of Franklin and Pickaway counties—has undergone a major transformation since the 1990s. It has become an international logistics hub, ranking among the top 10 Foreign Trade Zones in the country.
It all started with distribution centers for Spiegel/Eddie Bauer and Siemens in 1992. From there, Rickenbacker has morphed into a warehouse and distribution mecca with more than 70 million square feet under roof today.
Air cargo companies now use Rickenbacker's five air freight terminals and runway to move goods around the world. Two of the nation's largest rail providers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, have become major players at Rickenbacker as well.
In 2008, Norfolk Southern and the Columbus Regional Airport Authority opened the $68.5 million Rickenbacker Intermodal Terminal. It is part of the Heartland Corridor network in which double-stacked container cars are moved by train between the East Coast and Midwest. CSX is also an intermodal partner at Rickenbacker, providing rail service and transport of containers.
All the development at Rickenbacker clearly has been the No. 1 development in central Ohio's logistics sector over the past 25 years, says John Ness, owner and CEO of ODW Logistics Inc. The Columbus-based warehousing company has had a presence in the Rickenbacker area for decades.
“It's been transformative for Columbus and our industry,” Ness says, noting all the development at Rickenbacker has greatly improved the financial health and quality of life in Groveport and Obetz.
But he is also quick to point out the growth in the warehousing and distribution sector has certainly not been limited to the Rickenbacker area. There has also been ample development in Grove City, West Jefferson, the New Albany area and Etna Township in western Licking County.
E-commerce giant Amazon has been big news in recent years with the opening of massive fulfillment centers in Obetz and Etna Township that employ several thousand workers. And now Columbus is expected to vie for Amazon's second headquarters and the 50,000 jobs to go with it.
Ness believes the region's logistics boom has been driven by central Ohio's proximity to major US markets, the availability of good land and risk-taking developers willing to construct the sort of spec buildings needed by an industry that makes location decisions in as little as three to six months.
Ness is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward what lies ahead for the transportation and logistics sector in central Ohio. That includes disruptive technologies such as self-driving vehicles, Uber-style freight services and even drones for small package delivery.
“We're still a consuming economy that has got to get goods to market,” he says. “A supply chain will be required to do that.”
So will the existing highway system, adds Gill. He expects much of the region's future transportation efforts to be focused on “expanding our existing footprint where we can and maximizing what we already have.”
He also anticipates better use of the COTA bus system and possible development of a passenger rail connecting Downtown to the suburbs.
“It will come down to funding—where does the money come from to pay for these things?” Gill says.
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.
Our look-back stories in 10 key sectors show the only constant of the past quarter century has been tremendous growth and change.