$1.6 billion project to untangle city’s worst traffic snarl
Friday, January 23, 2009 3:25 AM
By Debbie Gebolys
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The long-awaited plan to rebuild I-70/71 through Downtown is here, along with a gigantic new price tag.
The Ohio Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have agreed to use Mound and Fulton streets as major routes to and from a rebuilt I-70. They also agreed on a retooled cost estimate: $1.6 billion.
That’s nearly four times as expensive as the 2004 ODOT estimate of $434 million.
It’s one of the most complicated highway projects in the state, one that’s designed to improve a section of road made dangerous by overlapping merges and heavy traffic.
“The split is one of the most congested areas in the state, ranked fourth statewide in terms of crashes and congestion, averaging two a day,” ODOT spokeswoman Nancy Burton said.
Work will begin east of the Scioto River in 2011, with those sections finished in 2017.
The Mound-Fulton route was by far the locally preferred one. In 2007, ODOT recommended the route to federal officials over one that would have used Mound and Livingston Avenue to usher traffic to and from a pared-down group of highway ramps. Burton said public sentiment ran 4-to-1 in favor of Mound and Fulton.
Lester Drive and Parsons Avenue serve as similar feeders to and from I-71 in the recommended plan.
The Mound-Fulton configuration spares German Village and the Brewery District, but puts the Franklin County courthouse complex, currently under construction, directly in the path of the feeders.
Franklin County commissioners didn’t respond yesterday to calls for comment but were on record a year ago as not opposing the Mound-Fulton alignment.
Glenn Kacic, condo association president for the Waterford Towers, has been on record for at least as long objecting to the alignment because it comes too close to his home. Elevated highway ramps are expected to skirt Waterford and nearby Miranova condos and would wipe out Miranova’s tennis court.
“We’re going to remain engaged with them about access, the noise, pollution and impact on the neighborhood,” Kacic said.
Dan Williamson, spokesman for Mayor Michael B. Coleman, said the mayor doesn’t favor one alignment over the other but is glad a decision has been made.
“What’s important to the mayor is the opportunity for pedestrians, opportunity to build caps just to keep neighborhoods interconnected with Downtown,” Williamson said.
Burton said enhancements such as highway caps, bike paths and widened sidewalks, are planned. State officials have said for years that local or private money would be needed to build caps similar to the one over I-670 in the Short North.
The huge cost increase for the project is the biggest surprise development.
Cost estimates at the inception of the project roughly a decade ago were $300 million to $400 million. By 2007, it topped $500 million. In December, state transportation officials estimated it at $1.2 billion.
Sam Staley, senior fellow at the fiscally conservative Buckeye Institute, said the $1.6 billion estimate “is crying for closer scrutiny.”
The state and federal agencies adjusted the original estimate for inflation, Burton said.
In all, the project would rebuild I-70 from Sullivant Avenue in the Hilltop past Kelton Avenue on the East Side, and I-71 from I-670 in Italian Village to Greenlawn Avenue in Franklinton. It would convert Mound and Fulton to one-way streets to take traffic to and from the Downtown highways.
Crews will start work at I-71 and I-670, then move south along I-71 to a new Main Street interchange. I-70 east of Downtown to around Kelton Avenue would come next. Then, several years into the project, crews are to rebuild the overlap and upgrade Mound and Fulton.
The last step, as yet unscheduled, would rebuild the highway bridges over the Scioto River, the I-70/71 interchange at Rt. 315 and I-70 heading west to Sullivant Avenue.
ODOT will explain the project from 3 to 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, 111 Liberty St. It’s also accepting public comment through Feb. 24 at www.dot.state.oh.us/projects/7071study.
I have no doubt this plan would reduce congestion and improve safety, but it is VERY expensive, which raises a lot of questions for me. I’m going to take some more time to review the giant environmental assessment before I comment too critically. If you are concerned about this project or would like to learn more, there is a public hearing scheduled for February 10th at MORPC.
Okay, I’ve looked this over a little more. Overall, I like the plan. It should take care of the major safety and congestion problems in the corridor. A lot of ramps will be removed and replaced with access points to Mound/Fulton or Lester/Parsons that are further upstream. This will get local traffic out of the congested area sooner and onto the one-way collector-distributor roadways. Three I-70 lanes will be on the inside and two I-71 lanes will be on the outside in each direction. New ramps at the major interchanges will reduce the weaving that causes congestion and crashes.
Other Good Things:
- Caps should improve the pedestrian environment crossing the freeway.
- Mound Street will connect through Franklin University.
- Future opportunity to reconfigure 3rd Street, 4th Street, and Long Street.
- Some buildings on Parsons will be removed.
- There doesn’t seem to be any transit component.
- It’s hella-expensive ($1.69 Billion).
So why is it so expensive? Here’s a breakdown of the project costs:
You can see that 34% of the costs ($196 Million) are due to projected cost escalation (inflation) and contingencies (unknown future problems). There’s no doubt that inflation has been a huge problem for construction budgets in recent years, but lately the economy has taken a toll on natural resource prices. Due to those lower prices and debt destruction in the credit markets, we’ve actually had quite a bit of deflation lately – despite the efforts of federal government cash injections, bailouts, and stimuli. So maybe we’ll get lucky and this project won’t cost as much as projected.
You might also be interested to know that 58% of the cost ($980 Million) is east of the Scioto River, which leaves about $711 million west of the river. The west section is an ODOT TRAC Tier 2 project, which means construction funding hasn’t been allocated yet. So the first phase will not actually cost the full $1.69 Billion.
So is there anything that can be done to reduce the cost? I think the ramp reconfiguration is absolutely necessary from a safety perspective, but I wouldn’t mind trying to find a way to widen the split from 6 lanes to 8 lanes instead of 10 lanes. This should save some money due to less earth excavation, lower retaining walls, less pavement, and shorter bridges. The project would still be very expensive, but I’d rather spend some of that money on transit than a 9th and 10th lane on I-70.
Let’s pretend that ODOT would like to persue a less wide option. A lot of traffic would have to be diverted away from the innerbelt. ODOT evaluated diversion options – and just about every other alternative you can imagine – earlier in the planning phase of this project. My favorite option, which is diverting through traffic to the south outerbelt (I-270), didn’t make it very far. They said diverting traffic to SR-104 would only get 15,000 vehicles per day off of the innerbelt, so a longer diversion to I-270 would probably do even less. With the roadway already 56,000 vehicles per day over design capacity, I guess I have to concede that wouldn’t help much. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the south outerbelt needs to be widened anyway. It’s only 4 lanes wide and it provides truck access to the growing Rickenbacker intermodal hub area. I suggest adding some High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes to the median. Bonds could be sold against future toll revenue that would allow capacity to be expanded without significant cost to the state. Heck, it could even be built by a private company as part of a build-operate transfer (BOT) contract. Dynamic message signs outside the outerbelt would tell drivers the travel times via I-70 through downtown versus the I-270 free lanes or the HOT lanes. Given good real-time travel information, through traffic would naturally divert around the congestion downtown. This would also allow the USDOT to add truck lanes that would meet the goals of the I-70 future corridor initiative, so maybe federal money would be available. This idea probably wouldn’t solve all of the Split’s problems, but it couldn’t hurt, and it could probably proceed relatively quickly if it were built by a private company.
I also didn’t really see any real evaluation of transit alternatives to reduce the number of driving trips into downtown. I think it would be nice if there were a transit component to a project this big, even if it were just adding some contra-flow bus lanes to 3rd and 4th.