Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Experts: Tristate in jam on traffic


Signs point to woes ahead at rush hours

By James Pilcher and John J. Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        At first glance, things don't appear to be so bad for Tristate drivers, at least by the numbers.

        The latest round of data from the U.S. Census shows that average commutes have increased only by about two minutes each way for most Greater Cincinnati drivers between 1990 and 2000.

        But area and national transportation experts say the figures also show something else: There are many more cars on the road, and the overwhelming majority having no occupants other than the driver.

        And while mass transit ridership is up throughout the region, the percentage of the total work force opting not to drive to work has declined in some areas.

        These same officials warn that the area already could be experiencing a highway space crunch that could affect economic development and the environment.

        And they say that this squeeze is occurring despite the previous decade's widespread and expensive expansion of highways, including:

        • The Fort Washington Way renovation downtown.

        • The widening of Interstate 71 north of Interstate 275 into Warren County.

        • The completion of the Ronald Reagan Highway (also known as Cross County Highway) through Hamilton County.

        • The renovation of Interstate 71/75's “cut in the hill” and S-curve through Northern Kentucky.

        “We've already caught up, and we've reached maximum capacity,” says Jim Duane, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, the agency that oversees transportation planning for the Tristate. “Any slightest bobble in the system, whether it be an accident or roadwork, and we have significant congestion.”

       

Drive-time numbers

        Figures show that drivers in Hamilton County spent a mean drive time of about 23 minutes each way getting to and from work. Workers in Butler County also had commutes of 23 minutes each way, while Clermont had 28.2 minutes and Warren had 24.1 minutes.

        In Northern Kentucky, the times were 24.4 minutes for Boone, 23.9 minutes for Campbell and 22.9 minutes for Kenton.

        Workers from Dearborn County had the longest commute in the area at 30.5 minutes, the fifth-longest drive among Indiana counties.

        Minutes spent on the road each way in the eight-county area at the heart of Greater Cincinnati increased 23.5 percent over the last 10 years. In addition, nearly 98,000 more drivers without passengers were on the roads every day each rush hour in the Tristate in 2000 compared with 1990.

        Capacity on several stretches of interstate around the area is 125,000 vehicles a day.

        “There are certainly more vehicles on the road, but that's because there are a lot more homes and businesses out here,” says Eric Schumacher, a salesman from Kings Mills who commutes to Pleasant Ridge daily. “I used to be able to leave at 7:15 in the morning to get in within 20 to 25 minutes. Now that's been pushed back to 7 a.m. so I can keep the same short drive time. If I left any later, it's 30 to 35 minutes easy.”

        “But I am willing to keep pushing it back and getting less sleep if I have to.”

        Paul Jablonski, Metro chief executive officer and general manager, says the Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University issued a 2001 report that shows Cincinnati was third-highest in congestion growth in the country, behind Salt Lake City and Columbus.

        Mr. Duane says the study showed that the region was the nation's 24th-most congested, up from 34th in 1990.

       

Census minutes checked

        “And we did our own drive-time study, and unlike the survey in the census, we actually drove it,” says Mr. Duane, who added that OKI's times were five to 10 minutes longer than the census figures on average.

        For example, OKI's February study of drive times along the area's interstates found that an average morning rush-hour trip along I-75 took 20.5 minutes from I-275 to the Ohio River alone. The census data showed mean drive times of 23.7 minutes from Springdale and 19.9 from Sharonville — both at I-75 and I-275.

        Area commuters such as Mr. Schumacher say that if their drive times have increased, it's primarily because of greater congestion off the interstate.

        “It's not the interstate, although that can get backed up, too,” says Dave Tavel of Alexandria, whose commute into Cincinnati is about 35 minutes on a good day, five to 10 minutes longer than it was 10 years ago. “I live in southern Alexandria, and the development along U.S. 27 and all the schools I pass make a big difference.”

       

Air pollution

        Officials also worry about what the figures say about the future of Greater Cincinnati's air quality — especially with more cars on the road, no expectation for much more road capacity anytime soon, and those federal standards potentially being made tougher in the coming year.

        If an area is out of compliance, it may lose federal transportation funds.

        Ohio is in violation of the standard for ozone — an odorless, invisible gas and a lung irritant that is created when emissions from vehicles and factories are heated. Northern Kentucky is in compliance.

        “Our cars might be 10 times cleaner than they were 10 years ago, but if we put 15 times as many vehicles out there, it doesn't do us much good,” Mr. Duane says. “We are outstripping any gains we've made in pollution control between buses and cleaner emissions with the total number of vehicles on the road.”

        Stu Mahlin, an outspoken critic of OKI and other area transportation agencies, says the numbers also show that Hamilton County is shriveling economically.

        “If anything the drive times and total minutes should be off the chart, if we were growing in Cincinnati like we should,” says Mr. Mahlin, president of the Southwestern Ohio Regional Drivers Alliance. “Instead, we see the numbers go up in Butler and Warren and Boone and Campbell counties, where all the growth is.

       

Design a factor

        “We do not have smartly designed roads, and we're being bypassed for development because of that.”

        As for places where traffic has increased significantly, Mr. Jablonski points out that commercial developers have moved south from the former hot spot at Fields Ertel Road, primarily because of traffic congestion.

        “If traffic gets too bad, people say they don't want to be there — that's been borne out through the years,” says Mr. Jablonski, who oversees Hamilton County's public bus system. “The battle now is to make sure that the entire region doesn't get that way.”

       E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com and jbyczkowski@enquirer.com

       



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