Thursday, June 20, 2002 NEWS   01C
By Brian Williams,
Dispatch Staff Reporter

The 1.5-mile accident-prone Downtown trench where I-70 and I-71 come together carries far more traffic than it was designed for -- and it's getting worse.

What's a transportation planner to do?

Add trains and subtract trucks, perhaps. Those are among the options that a 35-member panel will examine during an 18-month study for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

John Bartholomew favors thinning the herd of trucks that squeeze through the highway chute south of Downtown.

"Why aren't trucks directed around the city instead of through town?'' asked Bartholomew, a West Side resident who commutes through the gantlet to his East Side plumbing business.

Bartholomew is not on the Columbus Crossroads Advisory Committee, but his thoughts are likely to be on the agenda.

For one thing, he and other residents can offer suggestions at a meeting from 5 to 7:30 p.m. July 18 at the ODOT auditorium, 1980 W. Broad St.

For another, Columbus city councilman Richard Sensenbrenner, who is a member of the committee, shares Bartholomew's views.

"How can we encourage trucks to go around?'' Sensenbrenner said. "It's something we need to look into. We need alternatives to move people around the city, including regional light rail.''

Jack Marchbanks, ODOT deputy director for central Ohio, said it will be years before the I-70/71 section is upgraded. The highway cannot be much bigger or wider because it's in an urban area with expensive real estate, he said.

"The project concentrates on this tortuous stretch of combined interstate. No proposed solutions are off the table,'' Marchbanks said. "If there are things we can do besides more pavement, we will follow up on those.''

That could include building light-rail lines and bicycle lanes, expanding bus service, using high- technology traffic management, re- routing trucks and encouraging employers to give workers flexible hours.

MS Consultants of Westerville has a $3.7 million contract to work with the advisory panel, analyze data and help the ODOT develop a plan for the corridor.

"We're dealing with a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure that's served us well for the nearly 40 years,'' said Michael Rankin, chairman of the committee. "But as most of us who drive that section of highway know, it's very congested -- at a standstill during rush hour. Even at other times, there's a high number of accidents.''

The highway was designed in the 1960s to handle 122,000 vehicles a day. It's now used by 170,000 vehicles a day, including 17,000 trucks.

ODOT spokeswoman Michelle May said it is the most congested and hazardous section of highway in central Ohio.

The Downtown section makes up 6 percent of the I-70 and I-71 mileage in Franklin County, but accounts for 27 percent of the accidents on those freeways, or 2,648 of 9,775 accidents from 1998 through 2000.

ODOT Director Gordon Proctor said that, statewide, truck traffic increased 89 percent in the past 25 years. Planners expect it to increase an additional 62 percent in the next 20 years.

"Columbus has become the biggest truck center in Ohio'' because of distribution businesses in the area, he said.

Proctor projected that in 20 years, 30,000 trucks a day could use Columbus highways.

Larry Davis of the Ohio Trucking Association said he would oppose a ban on trucks through Downtown, such as the one during I-70 reconstruction last year. But the association will encourage truck drivers to use the southern Outerbelt during the day to ease congestion and give truckers a fast alternative.

Lou Jannazo, who represents the Ohio Rail Development Commission on the panel, said ODOT deserves credit for bringing perspectives from various transportation sectors into the process.

"The way we look at things, traffic is going to grow on all modes,'' he said. "You want to have more traffic capacity and get more freight moving, and we're going to have more people. You've got to plan for it.''



Caption: (1) Jeff Adkins / For The Dispatch

The area where I-70 and I-71 merge is now used by 170,000 vehicles a day, including 17,000 trucks. The Ohio Department of Transportation's plan to reduce traffic on that section of the freeway might include rerouting trucks, building light-rail lines, expanding bus service and encouraging employers to give workers flexible hours.

(2) Map

NOTE: Photo and Map accompanied original article but are not available here.