In the cross hairs: Study to probe congestion-laced downtown split

Kathy Hoke   Business First
From the May 31, 2002 print edition

The downtown split might as well be known as Central Ohio's splitting headache.

Each weekday, 150,000 vehicles and 17,000 trucks travel a two-mile stretch where Interstate 70 connects with I-71 on the southeastern edge of downtown Columbus.

Accidents occur there regularly, three times as often as any other section of I-70 or I-71 in Franklin County.

Traffic slows to a crawl almost daily, often twice a day at rush hour.

Also known as the South Innerbelt, the I-70/71 split will soon get a goodly amount of attention as a new advisory committee gears up for an 18-month study of the troublesome split.

As highway workers repaired a section of the split damaged the previous night by a truck accident, business and civic representatives on the committee met May 29 in Columbus for an orientation to the $3.7 million study that will begin in June.

"The whole idea is to see if we can come up with a range of options for improving the I-70/I-71 interchange," said Michael R. Rankin, an attorney for American Electric Power Co. Inc. who will chair the committee of about 30 members representing business and community interests in the vicinity.

"The issue is how do we increase the flow of traffic so we don't have the constant congestion and number of traffic accidents," said Rankin, who also is the outgoing chairman of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

Outdated design

Built 40 years ago, the downtown split divided neighborhoods as it moved traffic more efficiently through what was then a much smaller metropolitan Columbus area.

With traffic now well above what the highway was designed to handle and several other major interstate improvements completed in the last three years, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) has decided to begin a long-term examination of the split and ways to improve its design.

"We're trying to go in with no preconceived notions of what the solution is," said Michelle May, a spokeswoman for the transportation department's District 6, which includes much of the Columbus area. "Any solution will be costly and will be long-term."

Initiated and coordinated by ODOT, the Columbus Crossroads study aims to identify ways to reduce current and future traffic congestion and move traffic safely and efficiently through the area.

In the first step, to be taken in June, committee members will confirm and clarify problems, goals and needs. Through the rest of this year, they will gather and analyze information. By early next year, the study will turn to identifying and evaluating solutions, with a recommendation expected late in the year.

Along each step, the committee will seek public participation.

"Any project will have an enormous impact on the community because the highway is sandwiched by downtown neighborhoods and businesses," May said.

New construction is at least 10 years away, given the complexity, environmental concerns and funding issues of any improvement project. "We need to get started on it now," May said.

Many interested parties

In the 1960s, highway officials did not plan roadway improvements with significant public input.

"This is a smarter approach, but much more cumbersome," said Marilyn Brown, director of public affairs at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

Advisory committee members include representatives from such diverse interests as Miranova, Franklinton Area Commission, Ohio Trucking Association, Sierra Club's Ohio chapter, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church and Grant Medical Center.

"We all know it's a very busy interchange," said Peter Cooper, manager of Columbus City Center and a member of the advisory committee. Cooper wants to learn about the issue so he can keep the shopping mall's merchants and customers informed of changes that could disrupt business.

Ohio truckers are watching the issue closely.

"My concern is that they don't do something adverse to the trucking industry," said Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association, based in Columbus.

Davis said the geometry of the split causes many problems for truckers, including a short space for switching lanes and cars that dart in front of trucks that need extra space to make a stop.

Truckers want the shortest, most direct route, making Interstates 70 and 71 a top choice for cross-state traffic, Davis said. Adding vehicle lanes may be necessary.

"We will be glad to listen," said Davis, who is retired from the State Highway Patrol.

© 2002 American City Business Journals Inc.