Split's end

$1.6 billion project to untangle city's worst traffic snarl

 
Friday,  January 23, 2009 3:25 AM
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
 
The long-awaited plan to rebuild I-70/71 through Downtown is here, along with a gigantic new price tag.

The Ohio Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have agreed to use Mound and Fulton streets as major routes to and from a rebuilt I-70. They also agreed on a retooled cost estimate: $1.6 billion.

That's nearly four times as expensive as the 2004 ODOT estimate of $434 million.

It's one of the most complicated highway projects in the state, one that's designed to improve a section of road made dangerous by overlapping merges and heavy traffic.

"The split is one of the most congested areas in the state, ranked fourth statewide in terms of crashes and congestion, averaging two a day," ODOT spokeswoman Nancy Burton said.

Work will begin east of the Scioto River in 2011, with those sections finished in 2017.

The Mound-Fulton route was by far the locally preferred one. In 2007, ODOT recommended the route to federal officials over one that would have used Mound and Livingston Avenue to usher traffic to and from a pared-down group of highway ramps. Burton said public sentiment ran 4-to-1 in favor of Mound and Fulton.

Lester Drive and Parsons Avenue serve as similar feeders to and from I-71 in the recommended plan.

The Mound-Fulton configuration spares German Village and the Brewery District, but puts the Franklin County courthouse complex, currently under construction, directly in the path of the feeders.

Franklin County commissioners didn't respond yesterday to calls for comment but were on record a year ago as not opposing the Mound-Fulton alignment.

Glenn Kacic, condo association president for the Waterford Towers, has been on record for at least as long objecting to the alignment because it comes too close to his home. Elevated highway ramps are expected to skirt Waterford and nearby Miranova condos and would wipe out Miranova's tennis court.

"We're going to remain engaged with them about access, the noise, pollution and impact on the neighborhood," Kacic said.

Dan Williamson, spokesman for Mayor Michael B. Coleman, said the mayor doesn't favor one alignment over the other but is glad a decision has been made.

"What's important to the mayor is the opportunity for pedestrians, opportunity to build caps just to keep neighborhoods interconnected with Downtown," Williamson said.

Burton said enhancements such as highway caps, bike paths and widened sidewalks, are planned. State officials have said for years that local or private money would be needed to build caps similar to the one over I-670 in the Short North.

The huge cost increase for the project is the biggest surprise development.

Cost estimates at the inception of the project roughly a decade ago were $300 million to $400 million. By 2007, it topped $500 million. In December, state transportation officials estimated it at $1.2 billion.

Sam Staley, senior fellow at the fiscally conservative Buckeye Institute, said the $1.6 billion estimate "is crying for closer scrutiny."

The state and federal agencies adjusted the original estimate for inflation, Burton said.

In all, the project would rebuild I-70 from Sullivant Avenue in the Hilltop past Kelton Avenue on the East Side, and I-71 from I-670 in Italian Village to Greenlawn Avenue in Franklinton. It would convert Mound and Fulton to one-way streets to take traffic to and from the Downtown highways.

Crews will start work at I-71 and I-670, then move south along I-71 to a new Main Street interchange. I-70 east of Downtown to around Kelton Avenue would come next. Then, several years into the project, crews are to rebuild the overlap and upgrade Mound and Fulton.

The last step, as yet unscheduled, would rebuild the highway bridges over the Scioto River, the I-70/71 interchange at Rt. 315 and I-70 heading west to Sullivant Avenue.

ODOT will explain the project from 3 to 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, 111 Liberty St. It's also accepting public comment through Feb. 24 at www.dot.state.oh.us/projects/7071study.

dgebolys@dispatch.com