ODOT wants German Village residents, others to understand corridor plans

Daily Reporter Staff Writer 11/17/2003

Friday, representatives from the Ohio Department of Transportation met with citizens from the German Village area to discuss plans for reconfiguring a stretch of highway "in their backyards."

The downtown Interstate 70-71 connection, commonly referred to as "the corridor" or the "downtown split," could be placed on the chopping block as soon as next year, officials said, and could come with a price tag as high as $500 million.

According to ODOT, the split is one of the busiest sections of highway in the region, as well as the site of unnecessary lane merging, crowded exit ramps and a growing amount of traffic congestion.

Currently, ODOT is reviewing a preliminary design concept it says could potentially eliminate such congestion - a concept referred to as the "feeder system."

In short, the feeder system involves creating a separate stretch of road that would run parallel to the interstate, thereby placing through and downtown traffic on separate facilities.

The separate driving facilities, ODOT said, would prevent travelers passing through the city from mingling with commuters driving inside the city.

According to ODOT, the revised freeway system would force drivers to make a decision about whether they are following interstate 70 or Interstate 71 well before reaching downtown.

Drivers would convene on either through or downtown ramps before entering the metropolitan area, thus eliminating congestion.

The single feeder ramp into downtown, the department said, would have multiple exit ramps onto city streets, thereby replacing the current exit ramps on Interstates 70 and 71. ODOT said the ramp would be pedestrian friendly, designed with traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and would have a suggested speed limit of 35 mph.

ODOT said a similar system was used to aid traffic congestion in downtown Cincinnati. The plan, it said, successfully spread out traffic while linking its riverfront and downtown areas on Ft. Washington Way.

However, the idea of placing such a system on the cusp of German Village was greeted with skepticism and admonition from many area residents, approximately 60 of whom attended the meeting to voice concerns to city and ODOT officials about the possible construction.

"I think you're going to create a congestion nightmare," said one German Village man.

"There are still going to be people who need to get on and off the freeway who live in downtown, and to fix that, you're going to put up a few 35 mile per hour streets with stoplights. I don't see how that will solve the problem," he said.

Tim McDonald, transportation engineer and project manager for ODOT, maintained that the proposed feeder system will solve the problem.

Downtown and German Village residents, he said, will have better, more efficient access to 70 and 71 through the feeder system than with existing routes of travel.

Moreover, McDonald posited that since the new system eliminates the need for multiple on and off ramps in the split, it will allow ODOT to widen the freeway, thus allowing more traffic to flow past the city at a faster rate.

"We are not limiting access to city streets. In many cases, there will be more access to city streets with the feeder system," McDonald said.

"What doesn't work are the ramps that are too close together and create a mess. Now, if you want to get on 71 south, you have to get on 70 and fight your way to 71. The feeder system moves you straight onto the freeway, and in a more efficient manner."

McDonald said ODOT's current plans for the I-70 and 71 split included a heavy involvement with Mayor Mike Coleman, as well as input from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the group responsible for conducting traffic modeling surveys.

The partnership with these organizations, he said, was integral in creating ODOT's current blueprint, and adds both feasibility and credibility to the project.

Some members of the community, however, just were not buying ODOT's arguments.

One resident said he didn't understand how a parallel feeder street could make a dent in congestion if it contained multiple stop lights and a speed limit of 35 mph.

"I'm troubled by what you described as the Livingston and Fulton plans for 35 mile per hour being one way. How is making a one-way street consistent with your plans to stop congestion?" he asked.

McDonald corrected the man, and said contrary to rumor, Livingston would not become a one-way street. It would have, however, one-way exits where it joins to the feeder street.

"Only a portion of Livingston will be one way. There will be a transitional piece to the freeway, in the form of access ramps. It will be a transition from a freeway system to a downtown system."

Another resident was particularly blunt, saying he found it unfair that German Village should have to bear the burden of creating a more efficient commute vein for the rest of the city.

"I could care less about how someone from Dublin gets into town," he said. "I care about us, and so far you haven't addressed that."

Katharine Moore, executive administrator for German Village Society, articulated the feelings of many in attendance, stating that the disappearance of the Third Street ramp will cause more congestion and headache than many people at ODOT had bargained for.

"Here's our concern: We recognize that the short ramps on the corridor can cause accidents, but all the traffic that usually gets off at three ramps will now get off at one 35-mile-per-hour ramp in German Village," she said.

"We're alarmed that you're down to one plan, and you still haven't figured it out," Moore said.

Finally, some residents opted for the allegorical, attempting to express their disdain for the new street plans through metaphors. "Surgery isn't successful if the patient dies on the table," said one German Village man. "How are you going to minimize the problem of traffic congestion while the construction is being done?"

ODOT community and media relations director Michelle May admitted that while the proposed construction effort could take up to three years, its benefits, as well the temporary inconveniences that come with it, would be well worth the wait.

"Our goal is to make the area more efficient," she said.

May also said the city of Columbus would offer incentives to construction companies that work on or ahead of schedule. A very similar initiative was enacted during the construction of I-670, she said, and resulted with completion months ahead of schedule.

Speaking to the crowded room of concerned German Village residents, May found some of the most common concerns were fears that buildings would have to be demolished in the process of restructuring the corridor and building its feeder system.

While May said details of the construction specifics are not complete, ODOT said the project can and will be done in such a way so that each German Village home and commercial building will go unscathed.

"We don't want to create a concrete jungle," she said. "I know how hard it is to visualize this, and that's why I would encourage people to come to the meetings and talk with us about it."

According to ODOT, the downtown Columbus I-70 and 71 innerbelt corridor serves approximately 150,000 vehicles every day. Built in the 1960s, the corridor was considered a godsend in its day - merging lateral and longitudinal arteries of transit in the hub of Columbus' metropolitan area, melding the worlds of commerce and mobility.

However, with rates of traffic surmounting over the years, officials say the corridor has become an overburdened and hazardous area. According to ODOT, though the inner-belt corridor comprises only 6 percent of the total freeway system, it is the site of nearly 27 percent of all accidents on I-70 and 71 in Franklin County.

In recent years, city officials, including ODOT, had considered the construction of a double-decker bridge that would run over the corridor. Proponents of the idea said it would eliminate congestion and wouldn't require the destruction of surrounding properties.

May said the project was finally scrapped for a number of factors, the primary reason being that it was simply unfeasible and unrealistic.

"We rejected it because, first, we can solve weaving and congestion problems downtown without doing it. Second, it was going to be very expensive, and finally, because it's simply not that attractive to the downtown," she said.

While there may be many residents who hold similar feelings of antipathy towards ODOT's newest idea, May said part of any construction process includes amassing input and feedback from the community.

"Our intention is to go back, incorporate your comments, and come back to you with improvements," she said.

"Right now, we just have a concept, and we need to tweak it. Our plans are not set in stone."