Untangling entanglements
Need to reduce freeway congestion Downtown just keeps growing

Friday, November 29, 2002

You don't have to be a highway engineer to see that the juncture of I-70 and I-71 Downtown creates enormous congestion. So any proposal that would separate the two or join them somewhere other than Downtown deserves serious consideration.

The Ohio Department of Transportation has begun a study of alternatives and means of relieving clogged traffic Downtown. The study is important but will be pointless if it goes the way of many government studies: onto a shelf with no resolution.

One cannot help but think of how long the city needed to have the Spring-Sandusky interchange updated. And how many decades went by before the project finally began. When state money is involved, the priority list for funding can change as abruptly as the roster of legislators in power at the Statehouse.

For now, the plan to improve traffic flow in the Columbus area on I-70 and I-71 is for department engineers to evaluate various options -- including those suggested by residents by means of a Web site, www.7071study.org -- and to release a report in February or March. Then, after more input from the public, engineers would make recommendations sometime next fall.

One intriguing recent proposal is to carry I-70 traffic along a path that would overlap Rt. 104, a rarely congested highway. Some new highway sections would have to be built on the West Side, and there would have to be some reconstruction of ramps at the interchange of Rt. 33 and I-70 to accomplish this, but the result, with I-70 crossing I-71 well south of Downtown, sounds appealing.

Less aesthetically appealing is a proposal to build a double-deck highway Downtown, with I-70 and I-71 occupying the same land but not sharing the same pavement. This would seem to be the first step toward making Columbus look more like Los Angeles and Houston, enormous cities that are known for highways crisscrossing in the sky. These designs might function well when traffic is moving smoothly, but when an accident occurs, motorists may have difficulty finding their way back down to Earth from the aerial gridlock.

The point where I-70 and I-71 carry on together Downtown is not a happy marriage. These lanes were designed 40 years ago to accommodate no more than 120,000 vehicles per day, and ODOT estimates that they now carry 175,000 vehicles. Those 55,000 extra trucks and cars will be joined by more vehicles as central Ohio's population continues to grow.

The vehicles' numbers already have expanded to fit the space, and then some. These two major interstate highways shouldn't be intertwined in the center of Columbus.