ODOT addresses headaches at I-70/71 split
By Chiree McCain
If you’ve driven the downtown split — that 1.5 mile stretch of freeway where I-70 and I-71 merge near downtown — during rush hour, then you probably know there’s too much traffic for the existing roadway.
The Ohio Department of Transportation hopes to fix the problem over the next eight years. But before ODOT gets started, it is allowing a year and a half for input from a citizens advisory committee, area residents and local organizations.
ODOT officials and local residents discussed the problem and potential solutions July 18, at the first of many public meetings to take place during the 18-month I-70/ I-71 South Innerbelt Corridor Study.
Forty years ago, when Columbus’ freeway system was built, the downtown split was designed to handle no more than 120,000 vehicles per day, according to Michelle May, spokeswoman for ODOT. In 2002, it carries nearly 170,000 vehicles per day.
At the time I-70 and I-71 were designed, the goal of the freeway system was military mobility, not mass transit, added Tim McDonald, and ODOT spokesperson.
"The traffic in the early 1960s was nowhere near what we have today," he explained.
But the problem at the downtown split goes beyond traffic headaches.
According to ODOT statistics, the downtown split makes up 6 percent of the freeway but accounts for 27 percent of all I-70 and I-71 freeway accidents in Franklin County.
To complicate matters, there is little room for expansion.
"We don’t have a wide, grassy median where we can add lanes," said May.
With such a complicated problem, ODOT and the advisory committee are looking to the entire metropolitan area for suggestions now-not halfway through the project.
"ODOT has come out and said, "We’re going to do something radical here. We’re going to have citizen input from the very beginning," said Michael Rankin, chairman of the South Innerbelt Corridor Study’s Advisory Committee and general counsel at American Electric Power. "I’ve been so impressed by this project."
During the next 18 months, ODOT plans to provide several more opportunities for public comment. For more information, Columbus area residents should contact Michelle May at 644-8309.
"We do want to fix this corridor and be a good neighbor, and we want to know what that means to you," said McDonald.
Fact sheets, maps, and additional information about the I-70 I-71 South Innerbelt Corridor Study are available at www.dot.state.oh.us/projects/7071study/
Over the next couple of months, ODOT and the citizens advisory committee will be working to gather additional traffic and accident data.
Even before the first public meeting, ODOT has received some suggestions for fixing the problem.
"People are so impassioned by this issue that they’re already proposing solutions," said May.
She said those proposals include rerouting either I-70's or I-71's downtown split traffic onto other highways, such as State Route 104 or 315. Other proposals include a light rail system to reduce the burden on Columbus’ freeways.
"We’re not just looking at cement and steel solutions," Rankin said. "We’re looking at the whole picture."
Ron Barnes, a member of the citizens’ advisory committee, and executive director of COTA agreed.
"We think all modes of transportation should be involved as we design the interstate system," he commented.
Columbus Councilman Richard W. Sensenbrenner said the solution will have to include multiple modes of transportation-including light rail, bus, and car. He called the informal proposal to reroute I-70 traffic across State Route 104 "an interesting concept."
"Sensenbrenner also emphasized the role that a light rail system could play. He said the proposed north corridor line would draw an estimated 18,000 riders per day, and the proposed eight-line rail system would likely serve at least 100,000.
"That’s got to have a major impact on congestion, quality of life, and moving people around," he commented.
A light rail system doesn’t seem like a total solution to David Kovalchik, a recent graduate of Hilliard Darby High School and future engineering major at Ohio State University.
"Sure, those will help prolong how long we can use the new highway once we get it built," said Kovalchik. "We still have to improve the highways because people like their cars. We still have to fix the road."
Bexley resident Mary Ann Horton proposed a simple solution that could improve traffic in the short term, while ODOT is working toward more long term solutions.
She said the major bottlenecks are at the Fourth Street exit from I-70 and the Broad Street exit from I-71. At both locations, the freeway has only one through lane. She proposed that ODOT reconfigure the pavement so that there are two through lanes, separate from the exit ramp.
When the time comes for long-term solutions — and major construction — the work has the potential to negatively impact the neighborhoods near the downtown split.
Sensenbrenner, Barnes, and Olde Town East resident Michael Walton all emphasize the need to protect the neighborhoods and businesses next to the downtown split.
"As we go forward, we need to make sure that were very sensitive to the adjacent communities," Sensenbrenner said.