By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The committee overseeing a study of what to do about Interstate 75 Monday overwhelmingly approved a combination of widening the expressway in southwest Ohio and a new light-rail line from Covington to West Chester.
Click to view Acrobat PDF file (24k) showing details on expansion, light rail and next steps in the project.
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The fix will cost an estimated $1.83 billion, but is supposed to eliminate major rush hour traffic tie-ups 30 years from now.
Finishing up a three-year, $6 million study, the committee voted 27-1 for the mix, which calls for four lanes in each direction and some areas getting a fifth lane to reduce congestion. The light-rail system would offer trains every three minutes during rush hour.
Four members, including the city of Cincinnati's two representatives, abstained. The lone dissenting vote was Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin.
The recommendation now goes to the full board of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, the area's regional transportation planning agency. That board must approve the proposal as part of the region's long-term transportation plan before any of the recommendations can get federal funding.
The OKI board meets on Oct. 9 and could vote to adopt the recommendations.
"This three years has been the hardest work I've ever done in one of these, and I've been on a lot of committees and studies," said committee chairman Sterling Uhler, a former Fairfield mayor and councilman.
The I-75 fix, with estimated costs in 2003 dollars, would require 23 acres - much less than other wider highway options that were considered. An exact cost breakdown was not yet available, but the light-rail line would be just under $1 billion and the highway expansion would make up the rest.
The highway portion of the proposal could take 10 to 15 years to design and build, if and when the funding is located. Officials said it would take another study to pinpoint which areas would get an additional fifth lane.
A light-rail line would take as long or longer to fund and construct, given Hamilton County voters' strong rejection last fall of a sales tax hike that would have helped pay for a countywide system.
The recommended option was the only one of two that would remove traffic jams at rush hour in 30 years, the study found.
The other was widening the highway alone to six lanes in each direction in Hamilton County and five in Butler and Warren counties. But the highway-only option was estimated to cost $1.6 billion, and it would have created major disruptions. Officials estimated that they would have needed to acquire and clear 160 acres and 103 structures to make way for such an expansion.
The costs do not include $482 million Ohio is already planning to spend on improving the design of I-75, which does not meet federal safety design standards in many sections. They also do not include a potential replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, which could cost as much as $750 million.
Cincinnati Councilman John Cranley said the city abstained because it did not want to be limited to four lanes or even five in areas that carry more traffic, especially the stretch of the interstate between the Ohio River and I-74, which is already four lanes.
"I want to make sure that I discuss this with all of council and that we are not putting ourselves at a disadvantage," said Cranley.
Some members of the committee complained that they did not get enough data to make a fair comparison, including the Sierra Club's Glen Brand, who also abstained.
"But the good news is that OKI continues to see that any solution for the region's transportation problems must include passenger rail," Brand said.
Dowlin raised several concerns about light rail, citing data released by anti-light rail proponent Stephan Louis Monday that questioned points in the study. Dowlin also said more consideration should have been given to a potential I-75 truck ban, adding that no short-term solutions were offered.
Louis, whose release was strongly disputed by study consultants, said the decision to press for light rail was "disappointing."
"They keep having this irrational pull toward the carrot that the federal government keeps holding out for these pork projects," said Louis, who led the campaign to defeat the light-rail tax.
Uhler defended the study, but conceded that OKI now has a difficult task in fitting the proposal into the overall needs of the region.
"I think this is the best solution to a very difficult problem," Uhler said. "Maybe this thing will hold up for 25 years."
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