Suit with city possible over I-70/71 split, state says

Friday, February 24, 2006
Tim Doulin

Squabbling between state transportation officials and the city of Columbus has delayed plans to fix the dangerous I-70/71 Downtown split.

Disagreements over how to fix the problem have set the project back six months. Construction was supposed to start in 2009. State officials now say work might not begin until 2010.

The city and the Ohio Department of Transportation say they are working to reach an agreement. But a letter the state sent this month to a coalition led by Columbus said the Transportation Department anticipates that the matter could end up in court.

The coalition wants a "grand boulevard" to cap the westbound lanes of I-70 along the south leg of the split. The state has called the plan too expensive and questions whether it can be built.

State transportation officials say they will bring in national experts for a workshop to discuss the feasibility of constructing the grand boulevard.

In the letter, transportation Director Gordon Proctor said the state plans to hire a court reporter to take "precise notes (at the workshop) so we can share the outcome of the analysis with the public, federal agencies and possibly a federal judge."

Proctor wrote that the state’s analysis of the grand boulevard alternative will be scrutinized. "Because of this scrutiny, we will conduct this analysis with the assumption that its conclusions later could be challenged in court."

ODOT wants to make sure it does everything by the book, said Michelle May, a state transportation spokeswoman. "Because we manage a lot of large, complex and sometimes controversial projects, we need to make sure that we are operating in a very open manner so that it could withstand a future court challenge, if necessary."

The city has not threatened state officials, said Henry Guzman, Columbus’ Public Service director.

"We are not looking at it as an adversarial situation," he said of the workshop. "We are looking at it as an opportunity for us to get together with ODOT and finally reach a conclusion on the constructibility issue."

The grand boulevard would be a two-way, eight-lane city street. Proponents say it would reconnect surrounding neighborhoods to Downtown and could include sidewalks and shops, similar to the cap over I-670 in the Short North.

The state said those plans would cost about $770 million, or about $95 million to $110 million more than proposals the state favors.

The state also said thousands of motorists would be diverted onto Downtown highways and city streets during construction. Guzman said the city wants traffic experts to confirm that.

Built in the 1960s, the 1.5-mile stretch of freeway leads the state in congestion and crashes — about 800 each year.

The state favors one-way avenues, either Livingston Avenue and Fulton Street or Mound and Fulton streets, to fix the south leg of the split along I-70.

Both sides seem to agree that the best alternative for the east leg is to construct one-way city streets parallel to I-71 along sections of Parsons Avenue and Lester Drive.

"But there are plenty of details that need to be worked out," Columbus City Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy said.

The state can’t move forward without city support. It had hoped to reach a consensus by last summer on how to fix the split. Now the goal is this summer, May said.