ODOT plan would rebuild 70/71 split for $600 million

Friday, August 15, 2003 
by Debbie Gebolys 
Dispatch Staff Reporter

The 2 miles where I-71 and I-70 overlap Downtown should be gutted in favor of a 10-lane expanse with better ramps and easier driving for all, state transportation planners say.

In plans to be outlined in a series of public meetings beginning Monday, the Ohio Department of Transportation is recommending a $600 million upgrade to the state’s most dangerous stretch of highway.

"We’re pretty much looking at pulling out the entire design and rebuilding it," said Tim McDonald, ODOT project manager. "Everything is going to have to be updated."

Designed in the 1960s, the I-70/I-71 split is dangerously overused, carrying about 50 percent more vehicles each day than it was designed to handle. None of its ramps and lane merges meet today’s standards, officials said.

As a result, the split averages three traffic accidents a day, enough to make it the most dangerous stretch of road in the state.

Rebuilding the split is among six alternatives that surfaced this spring from public meetings and more than 600 messages submitted on the department’s www.7071 study.org Web site. Rebuilding "is the only concept that addresses both safety and congestion in the existing corridor," officials wrote.

Three ideas from that list have been discarded because they wouldn’t have fixed the design flaws on the split.

The first called for upgrading Rt. 104 and connecting it to I-70 near Cooper Stadium, at a cost of about $300 million. ODOT analysis showed an improved Rt. 104 would divert less than 10 percent of the 175,000 vehicles that travel the split each day. Traffic-modeling studies showed that many drivers wouldn’t take the alternate route, ODOT director Gordon Proctor said.

The other two ideas called for building elevated truck-only lanes or car-pooling lanes, for about $1 billion each. Trucks make up only 10 percent of the traffic in the corridor, and carpoolers also are infrequent travelers there. Either option would have required ways to separate traffic from the designated-use lanes, McDonald said.

A rebuilt I-70/I-71 could double the capacity of the thoroughfare, allowing it to meet estimated traffic demands through at least 2030, he said. Equally important, a new roadway would eliminate the hazardous network of ramps that cause bottlenecks, slowdowns and accidents.

"We could prevent a thousand accidents a year from happening," McDonald said.

The existing system of on and offramps Downtown would be scrapped in favor of one onramp and one offramp that would branch out to serve all of the city streets now served by the highway. The ramps would reduce the number of traffic merges along the stretch.

Officials say such a system would reduce the stop-and-go traffic that ODOT officials blame for most accidents in the corridor. In all, 63 percent of the accidents there are rear-end accidents, because of the high number of stopped vehicles and stops and starts, McDonald said.

The project would use a similar, consolidated set of on- and offramps along I-71 to replace exits at Spring, Long, Broad and Main streets between I-70 and I-670.

Two other strategies could help alleviate traffic sooner than a full-scale reconstruction, officials say. They expect the reopening of I-670 next month to enable as many as 50,000 drivers a day to avoid the split by using Rt. 315 and I-670. Meanwhile, a program to encourage telecommuting, car-pooling and alternative work schedules for Downtown employees also might lessen the strain.

But neither of those would help for long, given estimates of continued population and job growth in central Ohio.

Work could begin in as few as four years if Ohio secures $250 million a year in additional federal money in an effort Gov. Bob Taft announced last week. That money and an estimated $250 million more per year from a 2-cent gas-tax increase enacted this year could pay for the project.

After the public meeting Monday, ODOT officials intend to meet with neighborhood and community groups before settling on a final strategy before year’s end.

The public meeting is from 5 to 7 p.m . Monday at the Columbus Health Department, 240 Parsons Ave.