At least $58 million needed for 12 caps on Downtown split

Monday, January 29, 2007
Tim Doulin

Pat Lewis lives in Victorian Village, not far from the restaurants and shops that sit on the N. High Street cap over I-670.

She can’t help wondering about the impact a freeway cap over I-71 would have on the Near East Side, where she works.

"All those businesses on High Street seem to be booming," Lewis said. "It just seems like a nice cap with some businesses on it would make a huge difference over here."

Many involved with the reconstruction of the I-70/71 split Downtown seem to agree that covering the freeway is a good idea. The caps can bridge the freeway divide between Downtown and nearby neighborhoods.

But coming up with the $80 million to $100 million to pay for up to 12 caps over the 1.5-mile stretch of freeway is another matter.

The Ohio Department of Transportation has committed $10 million. Last week, a Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission committee recommended the agency put up $12 million for them.

A huge gap — at least $58 million — re- mains, and there is debate about who should fill it.

"ODOT and MORPC have made a financial commitment for caps," said Michelle May, ODOT spokeswoman. "I would expect the city and county also would make a financial commitment in the future."

Reconstruction of the freeway alone will cost about $800 million, which does not include the caps. ODOT has committed about $525 million and can’t afford much more, May said.

Mary Carran Webster, the city’s assistant public-service director, said Columbus is pursuing cap funding from government and private sources.

"We are still in the exploration stage; anything is a possibility," she said.

The county hasn’t looked at helping finance the caps, Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy said. The county already has projects lined up, the biggest being a new court building.

"Our bonding or financing capacity is going to be pretty full for a while," Kilroy said. "I don’t know whether the county would have the authority within the city limits to finance that or not."

Cost for a single cap ranges from an estimated $3 million to $12 million. Four caps could be built for $22 million "if you are judicious about amenities on top of the cap," May said.

"Right now, they are just conceptual ideas and ballpark costs," she said.

ODOT thinks there are potential sources to at least double the $22 million currently committed to the caps, May said.

One potential source could be the state infrastructure bank, which is overseen by ODOT. The city could borrow up to $20 million for capping, May said.

"That gives the city a lowinterest loan in which to build caps now and pay off over time," she said.

Tax-increment financing districts could be established based on the development that could occur as a result of the caps.

The cap over I-670 that bridges Downtown and the Short North cost the city about $1.3 million, while developers contributed about $8.5 million.

There is speculation that private investors could sponsor one or more caps.

"You really need a developer who has lived in your city and loves your city," said Jack Lucks, of Continental Real Estate Cos. and developer of the I-670 cap.

He said the cap has paid off for him, and he sees potential for investors in the I-70/71 caps connecting Downtown with high-density neighborhoods.

"Going up N. High Street, you have no idea there is a freeway there," he said. "We have gotten back the connecting link between the Short North, Victorian Village and the Italian Village, and that helps a lot."

Robert H. Milbourne, president of the Columbus Partnership and a member of a coalition pushing for the caps, expects private developer support.

"I think we have a very appealing argument to some Downtown developers that the caps will benefit Downtown development, and therefore they should consider being a piece of this pie," Milbourne said. "But realistically, I don’t think it is a large piece."

Others say most businesses near the freeway don’t have the big bucks needed to help.

"It is not that we don’t want the caps or desire the positive effects it can have on the neighborhood," said Rick Redmon, president of Olde Towne East Neighborhood Association. "Just the cost of staying in business can be daunting."

Redmon, a lifelong Near East Side resident, isn’t sure the responsibility falls to those who work and live in the area.

"One can’t forget the history of what I-71 North did to the Near East Side in the first place when it was first put in," Redmon said. "There are many who feel, me included, that in all fairness, the state and the city and whomever should really want to correct the past wrong," he said. "I don’t think anyone intended to kill the Near East Side, but nobody disputes that it did happen as a result of I-71."