Business Outlook 2011: A Splitting Headache

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

The bane of many a motorist may finally be on its way to extinction.

Beginning late next year, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) will begin slicing through the Gordian Knot that is the Interstate 70/71 split, a tangled section of highway in downtown Columbus that's aggravating at best and downright dangerous at its worst.

About 170,000 vehicles per day travel the 1.5-mile stretch of freeway, which was designed to handle 120,000 cars and trucks. The overload-in conjunction with numerous on- and off-ramps-has created "one of the most accident-prone interstate corridors" in Ohio, says ODOT Deputy Director Scott Varner.

The $626 million reconstruction project is intended to reduce congestion, minimize weaving and consolidate ramps, as well as reconnect neighborhoods that were severed when the freeway was constructed more than 50 years ago. "First and foremost, this about building a safer, more modern interstate system. At the same time, we had a unique opportunity to heal the scars of the past, to improve the crossings that connect Downtown to the neighborhoods on the east," says Varner.

Despite more than 400 public meetings held in the last eight years, not everyone is happy with the end result. Some Downtown and central-city neighborhood residents are concerned that the solution-particularly the roads that feed traffic on and off the freeway-will have an adverse impact on those who drive, bike or walk Downtown. There's also opposition to convert Spring Street into a one-way route.

The Downtown Residents' Association of Columbus is among the stakeholders negotiating to ensure the split revamp benefits the area. "We saw what I-71 did to our city, and we're not going to have ODOT just throw something together and make another freeway into our downtown," says association President Donna Carstens, a German Village resident.

Varner says ODOT has adopted a "complete streets" vision with narrower traffic lanes; pedestrian, transit and bike lanes; and more trees and landscaping. Roads such as Lester Drive and Parsons and Elijah Pierce avenues will feed traffic on and off the freeway, and will include parking, wider sidewalks, landscaped medians, COTA bus shelters, decorative streetlights, fencing and more.

The project's $260 million first phase, known as the North Interchange, includes improvements to the I-71/I-670 interchange, I-71 roadwork from I-670 to Spring and Long streets, reconstruction of the Long and Spring Street bridges, and "enhancement details" for the bridges as well as Lester Drive and Parsons/Elijah Pierce avenues.

ODOT estimates Phase 1 will create 5,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, starting in 2011. Phase 2, known as the East Interchange, will begin in 2013 and will cost $270 million. The $96 million third phase, dubbed the East Innerbelt, will begin in 2015.

Six bridges will be replaced during the project, but so far only the Long Street bridge will include a "cap" like the one over I-670 in the Short North. The bridge, which connects the King-Lincoln District to Downtown, will have a wider platform capped with a grassy plaza. Ultimately, the green space could give way to commercial development. That "really depends on our conversations with the neighborhood and, eventually, with the private sector," says Varner.

The price tag for the first three phases of work includes $11 million from ODOT for sidewalks, bike lanes and cap-capable retaining walls; $12 million from ODOT for streetscape and freeway enhancements; and $26 million from ODOT, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the city of Columbus for bridge enhancements. Those commitments amount to $49 million, or 8 percent of the project budget. The remainder will be funded through a mix of federal, state and local money.

When the third phase is completed, perhaps by fall 2017, ODOT will decide whether any additional work is necessary. "We may get through the three phases on the I-71 side of the corridor and find that the safety benefits we needed were there, that the connectivity benefits we wanted are there," Varner says. "That may address the issues that originally started this project and give us an opportunity to review when we might do any additional work on the I-70 side, the near South Side part of the project."

In the meantime, motorists would be wise to find a radio station they like or to stock up on audiobooks. "Transformation of this kind will not be quick," Varner says. "There will be a lot of orange barrels for a long period of time, but the end result will be so impressive."

Reprinted from the December 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.