State to unveil plan to put caps over highways
Project could reunite Downtown with neighborhoods, but funding is a hurdle
Tuesday, December 05, 2006

If money were no object, a rebuilt I-70/71 through Downtown could bore like a tunnel beneath a series of decorative bridges, landscaped promenades and commercial buildings.

Above the highway, Downtown could reconnect to German Village and the Near East Side in a way that hasn’t been possible since the highways slashed through the city more than 40 years ago.

Tonight, the Ohio Department of Transportation will unveil concept drawings for a dozen proposed caps that would hide the highways and reunite Downtown and its neighbors.

But money is an object, and last week ODOT officials raised cost estimates for the caps to between $85 million and $110 million.

Cap designs and suggestions for how to pay for them will be open to public comment beginning with the meeting from 6 to 8 tonight at the Columbus Health Department, 240 Parsons Ave.

"This is the first time the public is going to see specific illustrations tied to specific crossings," ODOT spokeswoman Michelle May said.

"At every one of those 12 crossings, whether we get an additional dime or not, what we’re going to build will be better than they have," she said. "What we’re going to get is good at a minimum. What we’d like to get is great."

Caps would add 30 feet to 120 feet on each side of the streets that cross over the highway. Three styles are being proposed, according to Chris Hermann, planning director at design company MSI, which drew up the plans:

• "Neighborhood connections" would be wider than a standard bridge to encourage pedestrians and other users. On five streets including 4 th and Oak, they could accommodate a farmers market or flea market and might include partial roofs to protect vendors and shoppers. Estimated cost: $2 million to $4 million each.

• "Signature connections" for four upgraded bridges would be "grand gestures." At Broad and Spring streets and elsewhere, they would be visible from the highway as well as Downtown, and include attention-getting details like those on the Lane Avenue bridge at Ohio State. Estimated cost: $6 million to $8 million each.

• "Expanded bridges" in three locations including High and Long streets would be wide enough to support buildings in the future like the High Street cap in the Short North. They would be built as parks and be developed later when business deals are made. Estimated cost: $12 million to $14 million each.

"Each one can be tailored to reflect the character of their surroundings," Hermann said. "We’re trying to inspire people as to what the potential could be, to get an idea of the size and scale."

The caps would be part of the $525 million reconstruction of the Downtown highways scheduled to begin in 2010 and be completed by 2015. But so far, the only commitment for the caps is $10 million from ODOT.

City and county leaders and the Columbus Partnership, a coalition of business leaders, have been trying for months to identify other funding sources. But they don’t agree on who ought to foot the bill.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman said last week that he wants ODOT to pay the entire cost for caps, but admitted that isn’t likely. More probable, he said, is a combination of money from the business community and various government sources.

Also last week, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission recommended against granting $25 million in federal funds to the caps. MORPC interim Director Bob Lawler said that recommendation could change if people tell MORPC that the caps are a high priority before regional planners complete their funding plans in February 2007.

"The door to MORPC funding is not closed," ODOT’s May said. "Hope is still alive."

May didn’t rule out the possibility that ODOT might contribute more for the caps, but not before the state sees other parties chip in.

"Before we talk about any funding shortfall, we need to see what the other local partners are bringing to the project," May said.