City officials give up idea of a grand boulevard
Federal, state officials kill costly option; focus shifts to freeway caps

Thursday, July 20, 2006
Mark Ferenchik

After months of arguing with the state, Columbus officials have given up their fight for a business-lined boulevard over I-70/71 Downtown.

The decision came after federal officials agreed to eliminate the idea from options the state is considering to rebuild the snarled section of freeway.

Instead, the city will pursue a series of caps — similar to the one on N. High Street that links Downtown to the Short North over I-670 — to connect Downtown to German Village and the Near East Side.

Civic leaders have submitted a list of 10 caps that they consider priorities. Together, they would cost $151 million, said Mary Carran Webster, the city’s assistant public service director.

The challenge now is finding money to build some or all of them.

The Ohio Department of Transportation has committed $10 million to build two I-670-type caps Downtown, one over I-71 to the Near East Side and one over the highway to German Village, said Michelle May, a department spokeswoman.

The city wanted a shop-lined, eightlane boulevard over the busy section of Downtown freeway to integrate German Village and Downtown.

But in May, the state said the idea would cost too much and would cause traffic problems. ODOT estimated the boulevard would add $100 million to the $665 million project to rebuild the busy 1.5-mile stretch of highway, where about 800 crashes occur each year.

The city continued to push for the boulevard, but the Federal Highway Administration told the state to narrow the alternatives for the project, state officials said.

This fall, the state Transportation Department will finish analyzing the two remaining options: turning Livingston Avenue and Fulton Street, or Mound and Fulton streets, into one-way streets that collect traffic from the freeway.

The city’s fight for a cap probably slowed the process by nine months to a year, May said.

"It’s important now that we agree and are moving forward," she said. ODOT wants to begin construction by 2010. State officials met recently with Mayor Michael B. Coleman, Franklin County commissioners, City Council members and the Columbus Partnership about the project.

"We just came to the realization that ODOT was not going to support the grand boulevard under any circumstances," said Columbus Partnership President Robert Milbourne.

So they asked the state for help in identifying money for more freeway caps.

"The 670 cap is so successful," Coleman said.

He discussed capping E. Long Street over I-71 to connect Downtown with the King-Lincoln District on the Near East Side.

"We advocated strongly for the boulevard concept," said Mike Brown, Coleman’s spokesman. "If ODOT is not going to pursue that, caps would be the next-best solution.

"Our priority is getting the best fix for the city of Columbus. It needs to be safe and reconnect our neighborhoods and Downtown."

But if the city wants to build more caps, it must find more money. Options could be federal funds, low-interest state loans or even private financing by developers, Milbourne said.

The cap over I-670 cost the city and state $1.3 million. But developers spent $8.5 million more to put in the buildings, said Jack Lucks, of Continental Real Estate Cos., which developed it.

What’s important is minimizing the freeway trenches that separate neighborhoods, he said.

"What we have now is a scar," Milbourne said. "It destroys the connectivity of the Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Capping is the one way to cover up the scar."