ODOT wary of city's plan for 70/71 split
Adrian Burns, Business First

Columbus' chosen plan for redesigning the congested Interstate 70/71 split isn't the best option available, says a study by the Ohio Department of Transportation.

The proposal, submitted in July by the city, Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and others, calls for widening Fulton Street onto an elevated deck over the westbound lanes of I-70.

The idea aims to use the deck to halve the expanse of the I-70/71 corridor, allowing for the transformation of Fulton Street into a green boulevard that would complement renewal efforts planned for the nearby RiverSouth district. The boulevard would also control traffic moving from the expressway onto city streets.

"We think the grand boulevard brings a lot to the table," said Henry Guzman, director of the city's Public Service Department.

But the proposal comes with some major drawbacks, said Thomas Slack, ODOT's preliminary engineering manager.

"There are a couple of aspects we feel are a great risk," he said.

Among the city plan's chief shortcomings, the state analysis said, is a complex design and a price tag - at $830 million - that makes it the most expensive of the options under consideration. The study also said the plan would create wider, less-efficient intersections, pedestrian crossings with a greater chance of accidents and more traffic problems during construction.

The city's plan, Slack said, would eat up ODOT's funding on extensive improvements for a small section of the I-70/71 interchange, instead of making less-costly improvements to a larger part of the split. The transportation department has $425 million available for the project through 2011, after which money to finish it may be tougher to secure, Slack said.
Michelle May, ODOT's program manager for highway safety, said it's important to go with a plan that best uses the money available.

"We want to get the most improvement for the dollars we're going to invest," she said.

Merging ideas
The top plans in ODOT's analysis are similar and would eliminate most downtown exits. The favored plans call for the creation of exits on downtown's periphery that would funnel traffic to center city streets - Mound and Fulton streets in one plan and Fulton and Livingston Avenue in the other. Both call for north-south traffic coming off the highway to be routed along Parsons Avenue and Lester Drive.

Those plans range in cost between $660 million and $675 million.

ODOT officials have been studying the I-70/71 intersection for more than three years to find a way to consolidate exits with the goal of more efficiently separating traffic headed downtown from that passing through the city on the highways. Those flows currently converge in a heavily traveled multilane "split" that is prone to accidents.

The split was built in the 1960s and was designed to accommodate 125,000 vehicles a day. Today, the split handles 175,000 vehicles daily and is the site of about two crashes every day because of the overload.

Slack said the community must reach a consensus because ODOT needs approvals from the city and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission before the project can start. And because the four top-scoring plans are fairly similar, coming to an agreement will be a matter of working out details or taking parts from one plan and applying them to another, he said.

"Nothing is ever a slam-dunk," Slack said.

The city is not conceding to ODOT and for now is taking its own look at the state's findings, Guzman said. City officials plan to work with the transportation department to find a solution, he said.

"This is not an adversarial situation," Guzman said.

If it is eventually found that the existing boulevard plan is not the best solution, then the city will accept a compromise, Guzman said.

"At some point we'll agree or disagree, then move on," he said.

ODOT finished its nearly year-long analysis of the proposals in July, when the city submitted the latest plan. It set the ODOT decision-making process back by about six months, May said.

It is possible that one plan will be chosen for the I-71 leg of the project and another for the I-70 portion, Slack said.
ODOT's timeline calls for narrowing the choices to one or two plans per leg by the beginning of 2006. Then the final plan will be chosen for each leg of the project, and environmental impact and cost studies will be conducted through mid-2007.