Plan takes I-70 out of Downtown
ODOT’s proposal would require through traffic to use modified Rt. 104 in effort to ease backups

By Debbie Gebolys THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

A fix for the state’s most-treacherous stretch of highway could reroute I-70 well south of Downtown.

Ohio Department of Transportation officials said yesterday that they will develop plans that would force I-70 motorists a few miles south to Rt. 104 to make navigating I-71 easier.    The infamous I-70/71 split would be no more.

The latest proposal reconfigures one tossed out last year when ODOT introduced its plan for a $500 million retooling of the split.

The earlier Rt. 104 plan would have kept the split and given motorists the option of using I-70 or Rt. 104. Planners concluded that, if given an option, not enough people would use Rt. 104 to alleviate the gridlock that has made the Downtown split the most accident prone stretch of highway in Ohio.

The tweaked idea surfaced this week after a series of meetings with community, business and government groups.

"We didn’t get it right right off the bat,’’ ODOT spokeswoman Michelle May said of original plans. "We’re willing to go back and look at other options as well as the option we proposed.’’

The latest plan would require I-70 west of Downtown to be diverted near Cooper Stadium to connect with Rt. 104 near Frank Road. On the east, Rt. 104 would be extended through the Rt. 33/James Road area to reconnect with I-70.

The portions of existing I-70 Downtown — from Cooper Stadium to Rt. 315 and from Children’s Hospital to Rt. 33 — would be converted to 35 mph city streets with traffic lights, officials said.

"The theory is that we pull all the I-70 traffic out of Downtown and give the existing roadway to a wider I-71,’’ said ODOT Project Manager Tim McDonald.

 ODOT is trying to answer complaints that its original design would have prohibitively restricted access to Downtown businesses and neighborhoods by removing many Downtown access ramps. But McDonald said the Rt. 104 idea might not entirely quell that worry.

"Whenever you rip out a freeway system, you change access radically,’’ he said. Children’s Hospital, for example, would retain I-71 access but lose its current proximity to I-70.

In November, ODOT proposed retooling the highway by separating through traffic on I-70/71 from Downtown-bound traffic. The plan would eliminate highway lane changes by dedicating three lanes of traffic to I-70, two lanes to I-71 and creating collector-distributor streets above the highway for motorists getting to and from two sets of Downtown ramps.

Critics said the plan would further split Downtown from neighborhoods to the south. It would also make it harder for drivers to get in and out of Downtown.

That plan remains an option, May said. But now it has competition.

"We’re trying to be as sensitive as we can to everyone’s concerns,’’ May said.

Already, ODOT officials are working to design more ramps into the new highway because of public reaction to the November plans.

 Whichever plan is ultimately chosen, "We are definitely increasing the number of ramps,’’ McDonald said.

 To answer concerns about the highway cutting off neighborhoods, ODOT hired Myers Schmalenberger, an urban-design company, to create a streetscape plan that is to include decorative plants and other features.

"There’s great potential to improve pedestrian walkways, to improve the landscape, all those things,’’ May said.

ODOT also will explore leaving all Downtown ramps intact while untangling the current puzzle of merges and weaves through the split.

New designs are expected to be made public in April, when detailed analyses are to be complete. But even then, the designs might not please everyone.

"Whether you hate it or like it, you’re used to the split and change is scary,’’ May said. "I’m not really sure there’s one option that solves every concern out there.’’

Still, McDonald said the latest ideas could prove to be the best ones.

"It’s possible that some of these things we thought were a little strange might be more viable than we originally thought,’’ he said.

    dgebolys@dispatch.com