Thursday, October 9, 2003

I-75: No easy fix to woes

Traffic options limited

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You're sitting in your car in stalled Interstate 75 traffic in the Lockland canyon.

Adding a lane to the expressway and building a light-rail line, which the region's transportation planners could approve today, won't help you this morning. In fact, it won't help you until the middle of the next decade. And the fix will cost $1.83 billion in tax dollars.

So you sit there. Thinking. "Is that all there is?

"Why don't they spend that money to build a new bypass of the region? Why don't they just double-deck the expressway, to add capacity without having to flatten neighborhoods such as Lockland? Can't they just ban truck traffic inside I-275? Why can't we have a high-occupancy vehicle lane, as they do in other cities?"

In fact, those involved with the three-year, $6 million study that came up with the highway/light-rail option considered those strategies, which have been used with mixed success elsewhere.

In the end, the study came up with widening the highway to four lanes throughout Hamilton, Warren and Butler counties, and to five lanes in some spots, as well as a new light-rail line. This plan is up for approval today by the board of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

OKI approval - necessary for federal funding - will be the last major step of the study of the outdated, overcrowded expressway. Following are four of the more than 20 alternatives that were discussed and rejected.

When the study began in the fall of 2000, a bypass around both Dayton and Greater Cincinnati to either the east or the west was one of the first ideas floated. It was also one of the first to be axed.

While proponents of such a plan say it would be cheaper to build a new road through mostly uninhabited farmland than rebuilding and expanding an urban interstate, planners and engineers say that isn't the case.

Building the new concrete and asphalt would be cheaper in such areas. But the land acquisition costs would be astronomical, however, even if it were farmland.

A bypass wouldn't help much during rush hour, when I-75's problems are worst. Local commuters, not truckers and travelers passing through the region, make up the bulk of rush-hour drivers.

Another recurring idea has been to build a double-deck highway above the existing throughway for at least part, if not all, the stretch of I-75 from the Ohio River to I-275.

The thinking: No new land would need to be taken, yet it would at least double the capacity of the highway, because the bottom lanes could then be made reversible during rush hour.

But this concept was ruled out early for one reason: cost. One estimate for what would essentially be a 12-mile bridge from the river to the bypass was $20 billion. And that didn't include redesigning all the interchanges or regrading the existing highway

One of the most controversial proposals has been banning large trucks from the interstate inside the I-275 loop, at least during rush hour. The argument: Since one truck takes up the space of five cars, capacity would skyrocket.

Yet such a ban would cause major problems for law enforcement.

Shippers would suffer, a concern since Greater Cincinnati has become a major transportation hub.

The idea of a ban has created a major debate at OKI, with rural representatives opposed because trucks would end up on I-275 in their areas. Planners also cautioned more trucks on I-275 and other roads means more damage to them.

The last concept most frequently mentioned by commuters and members of the study committee has been high-occupancy vehicle lanes. HOV lanes are reserved for vehicles carrying two or more passengers.

In theory, such lanes would encourage carpooling. But apart from a few cities, such as Washington, D.C., HOV lanes fail two ways. One example is Atlanta, where commuters are squeezed into the remaining lanes. In other cities, the new lane goes unused if traffic does not reach a critical mass, which can take years in smaller- to medium-sized cities.

So after all that, and after deciding which exits needed to be reconfigured, the committee was left between widening the existing highway, a new light-rail system, or a combination of both .


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