State balks at deck on I-70/71 split
Boulevard proposed by the city too costly, ODOT analysis says
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Tim Doulin
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

A grand boulevard envisioned by the city and other local officials to welcome motorists Downtown may be too grand for the state.

Though it has not been eliminated from consideration, the late-entry proposal as a way to untangle and rebuild the I-70/71 split would not only be the most expensive of five options under consideration, but also one of the more difficult to build, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.

"We think actually building the grand boulevard is going to be extraordinarily complex and maybe even impossible," ODOT director Gordon Proctor said.

The department recently finished analyzing the proposal, which would add lanes to the freeway and create a two-way boulevard Downtown along Fulton Street and Lester Drive that would ride a deck over the southbound and westbound freeway lanes.

Among five alternatives being considered by ODOT, the one involving the grand boulevard was ranked third by the state.

In the summer, Columbus, the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and others asked ODOT to consider the idea of the grand boulevard after the state had ranked the four other alternatives.

Proponents said the boulevard would help reconnect Downtown with nearby neighborhoods and create some areas for green space and economic development.

The city and others are still pursuing the grand boulevard alternative, said Henry Guzman, Columbus’ public service director.

He said ODOT has not "told us that it cannot be done."

"Sure, we have seen their analysis and we are in the process of responding to the issues they have raised," Guzman said.

The I-70/71 split is a 1.5-mile stretch of highway considered one of the most congested and accident-filled in the state. About 175,000 vehicles a day travel the split. That is about 50,000 more than it was designed to handle when it was constructed in the 1960s.

ODOT, the city and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission must approve of the final plan fixing the split.
The department said the boulevard requires wider, more complex intersections that are less efficient in moving traffic and make it more difficult for pedestrians.

Construction of the boulevard would require closing the freeway for a long time and force traffic onto city streets and elsewhere, Proctor said.

"If ODOT went in and said, ‘I’m going to close this for a year,’ I think I would get flogged and run out of town," Proctor said.

With a price tag of about $830 million, the boulevard is the most expensive of the five alternatives. ODOT said it has only about $425 million available through 2011 for the project. That would be enough to build either the east leg or south leg of the freeway in the boulevard alternative, but not both.

The other alternatives also cost more than $425 million, but "the $425 million will carry us a lot further on the two alternatives that are ranked above the boulevard alternative," said Michelle May, ODOT spokeswoman.

The department also is concerned about the availability of additional federal funds in the future.

Proponents of the boulevard alternative are not convinced that the freeway would have to be shut down to build it.

"There may well be some creative solution, and we certainly would like to look for that before we decide we can’t do it," said Robert H. Milbourne, president of the Columbus Partnership, a civic-improvement group.

Proponents also are not convinced that the additional money for the project cannot be found down the road.

"Our view is, we should first find the best solution, then all work together to figure out how we finance it," Milbourne said.
ODOT officials want to narrow the alternatives from five to two by early next year. A final plan for the corridor is expected by next summer and construction would begin at the earliest in 2009.

tdoulin@dispatch.com