Monday, December 29, 2003

Traffic tie-ups take hold

Routes gain ground as places to avoid

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Congestion is so common on some Greater Cincinnati roads and highways that merely mentioning their names conjures images of cars sitting still, their drivers muttering to themselves:

Click to view an Acrobat PDF file (large; 3.2mb)
showing in-depth details about 12 tangled bottlenecks in the Tristate area that are best avoided.
(Enquirer infographic)
Colerain Avenue. Beechmont Avenue. The cut in the hill. The Brent Spence Bridge. Fields Ertel Road. You're nodding.

But a new batch of gridlocks is making additional notorious names.

From Tylersville Road in Butler County, where commercial and retail growth is strangling traffic, to south Taylor Mill where a residential boom is filling roads, Greater Cincinnatians are discovering that gridlock is moving farther into the suburbs.

The Enquirer asked people who should know - readers, drivers, traffic engineers and transportation experts - to tell us what's making them grind their teeth, and their brakes. We came up with a list of 12 new bottlenecks from the northernmost suburbs to those south in Kentucky.

The list is unscientific, but the traffic problems are real. The spots also share certain characteristics.

Among the findings:

It's growth

Population has grown faster than road capacity, transforming quaint country roads and sedate suburban streets into tangled messes of sluggish, if not dead-stopped, traffic.

Tired of sitting in traffic? Sick of tie-ups, jams and bottlenecks? How do you avoid those long lines of cars?
Tell us about Cincinnati's worst traffic nightmares
"Road problems come hand in hand with growth," says Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore, who helps lead a Northern Kentucky county where the population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years to 93,290 today.

"It would be nice if communities had the financial resources to widen and improve roads before the growth comes," he says. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."

Trouble spots that can be blamed on growth include Tylersville Road in West Chester Township, Ky. 16 and Ky. 17 in southern Kenton County, and Amelia-Olive Branch Road in Clermont County.

Bob Koehler is transportation planning division manager of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, the region's long-term highway planner. Where he sees rapid growth, he anticipates bottlenecks.

"You typically have congestion demand exceeding the supply of available roadway in a certain area," he says.

He points to the development of Kenton County in Northern Kentucky.

Ky. 16, known as Taylor Mill Road, and Ky. 17, also called Madison Pike, are major arteries leading from the Interstate 275 beltway to rapidly growing suburbs and subdivisions in Taylor Mill, South Covington and Independence.

Ky. 17 recently went through a major reconstruction, and Ky. 16 is scheduled for an overhaul.

"You've heard the expression, 'Build it and they will come,' " Koehler says. "Well, they went out there anyway, whether the roads were there or not. Those are nice, desirable areas full of inexpensive land and new homes that aren't far from downtown Cincinnati. It's not really a surprise that so many people came before the roads had the ability to carry extra cars."

Road construction

Fast-growing places such as West Chester in Butler County are continuously building roads to try to accommodate growth and to untangle traffic knots.

A community will widen a road to accommodate a new development. Traffic is tied up while construction takes place. Then when the road is improved, it attracts more traffic and more development. That turns the revamped road into a new bottleneck.

Tylersville Road is a prime example. More than a decade of rapid retail, commercial and residential development has clogged roadways.

Although it has been a traffic problem for years, it keeps getting worse. West Chester resident Linda Young blames new development on Cox Road, which intersects with Tylersville near Interstate 75. The culprits? A new Target-anchored shopping center, a medical complex, and two new restaurants.

"Try leaving your house off of Cox Road on a Saturday morning," she says. "I have sat for 20 minutes trying to go north to Tylersville. I try not to leave my house until late in the evening or (as early as) 7 a.m. in the morning."

Changing lifestyles

Gone are the one-car, one-worker families of a few generations ago. In their place are busy families with lots of kids on the go.

"Today in most families, both parents work, the kids in high school and college have cars, and we've put three and four times as many cars on the road as we had in the 1950s and '60s," says Hamilton County Chief Deputy Engineer Ted Hubbard.

He says people used to take weekend drives to rural areas to relax. Now it's a race to hit the mall, get the kids to neighborhood games, go to the city gym.

In Butler County, youth soccer games have helped create a bottleneck at Joyce Park, a sprawling sports complex on River Road that straddles the dividing line between Hamilton and Fairfield. During the fall and spring, it hosts dozens of weekend tournaments and games. But with just one main entrance off of River Road, fans often endure waits of 30 minutes or more just to get in and out of the park.

"It's just incredible how congested it is," says Sharon Ko of Fairfield. Her husband coaches and her 9-year-old son plays, and as a result, she sits in traffic that sometimes backs up more than a half mile down River Road.

Hamilton and Fairfield have jointly applied for a $1.58 million state grant to add an access road just north of the park entrance. Each would pay $210,000 in matching funds. If the grant comes through, construction will begin in 2004 and finish in September of 2005 - just in time for the fall soccer season.

The Advanced Regional Traffic Interactive Management & Information Systems, better known as ARTIMIS, watches traffic more closely than anyone in the Greater Cincinnati area.

From a high-tech site on Cincinnati's Third Street, ARTIMIS staffers rely on a bank of video cameras to keep them current on traffic conditions along 88 miles of the region's highways.

Spokesman Tim Schoch, a retired Cincinnati police officer, says motorists themselves cause bottlenecks. He points to drivers who can't drive by a traffic tie-up, accident or otherwise, without slowing.

"Rubberneckers, hawkers, lookers; they have lots of different names," Schoch says. "But we all know them, we all have seen them."

Schoch also notes the work habits of Americans.

"We live in a society where everybody wants to go to work and go home at the same time," he says. "I don't see that ever changing, so we're always going to have morning and afternoon traffic jams."

And so it goes in Greater Cincinnati. Or, maybe it doesn't.

Second of two parts

Sunday: Is it possible to remake Colerain Avenue?


Reporters Steve Kemme, Marie McCain and Jennifer Edwards contributed. E-mail

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