Sunday, October 5, 2003

Access to Uptown

Coalition: New I-71 interchange

A proposed I-71 interchange at Martin Luther King Drive makes so much sense it's puzzling it wasn't included when I-71 was built. One explanation is that since then, the University of Cincinnati, its medical campus, Children's Hospital and other med centers have grown phenomenally, making Uptown the city's second largest employment base, with about 60,000 workers a day.

A "grassroots" coalition of universities, hospitals, churches, the zoo, community councils and business groups is pushing to get the interchange listed in the all-important five-year federal authorization bill now before Congress. If the interchange project can comply with federal highway regulations and survive environmental impact studies and other tests, it could greatly improve access to Uptown, secure major institutions there and help reverse long-time "disinvestment" that has plagued mostly African-American neighborhoods.

Authorization should not come at the expense of critical transportation projects such as a $500 million replacement of I-75's Brent Spence Bridge. The coalition isn't asking for that. But they are scrambling to add the interchange to the federal authorized project list, so it won't have to wait another five years just to be studied.

Hospital officials say a Martin Luther King interchange could knock vital minutes off ambulance runs and keep their med centers viable in competing against suburban health care institutions. MLK Drive has become a major cross-town connector. The truth is, it needs fixing at both ends - at the I-75 Hopple Street exit and with a new I-71 interchange. As it is now, northbound I-71 traffic from downtown is denied access to mostly African-American neighborhoods until the Dana exit. The Amos Project of 43 congregations and the Baptist Ministers Conference endorse a Martin Luther King interchange. Cincinnati Councilman John Cranley and Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox are championing the interchange with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. They have roughed out tax increment financing to help pay for it in a way Fox pioneered in Butler County. Cranley estimates it would cost at least $35 million, and the city would need to chip in some matching funds.

According to Cranley, Uptown is a larger jobs center than either downtown Dayton or downtown Akron. Cincinnati should act to keep this employment base viable with new access that could help revitalize as many as nine neighborhoods.

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