Cap what we can

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The solid success of the High Street cap over I-670, replete with fashionable restaurants and storefronts where pedestrians once trudged warily across a windblown, open bridge, suggests that caps work. So local and state planners should do all they can to include capped bridges in the redesign of the I-70/I-71 split. But boosters should realize that the vision might have to be trimmed to fit what the community can afford.

Supporters of the cap idea, including the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, are trying to figure out where to come up with the $110 million or so needed to build caps along 12 of the bridges that cross the freeway. ODOT has pledged $10 million, and MORPC has promised $12 million.

Other possible sources include the city of Columbus, which could borrow from a state loan fund, and businesses that stand to benefit from revitalized links between Downtown and German Village on the south and the Near East Side to the east.

Planners also could ask ODOT, now overseen by Gov. Ted Strickland, to consider a larger contribution. The I-70/I-71 project is ranked among ODOT’s top five priorities statewide, and the caps promise the sort of economic-development benefit that the state wants to maximize on transportation projects.

But if the full amount can’t be raised, cap supporters should be prepared to choose from among the 12 caps currently proposed.

In choosing, they should balance each proposed cap’s potential for economic development with the damage each neighborhood has suffered from being divided by the freeway.

Linking Downtown to the Brewery District and German Village, along Front, High, 3 rd and 4 th streets, has obvious commercial potential. But no neighborhood in Columbus was more devastated by 1950s and 1960s freeway development than the Near East Side. Building new links to Downtown could spur improvements that otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.

Freeway caps could transform the urban landscape by restoring city streets to prominence over the unsightly, if indispensable, highways that now slash through neighborhoods.

Central Ohio planners should work to enable the I-70/I-71 split to have as many caps as possible, but they shouldn’t regard it as an all-or-nothing proposition.