Sunday, August 06, 2000

FWW: Changes should improve road safety

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When designers of the reconfigured Fort Washington Way discuss project goals, No. 1 on the list is improving safety.

        Gone, they say, are the constant lane changes drivers endured to exit the highway and the hard merges for those getting on that created countless fender-benders.

        But they acknowledge that the new design raises other, new safety issues, namely increased speeds, access to the main trench during emergencies and possible confusion over exit directions.

        The stretch of highway — which only measures eight-tenths of a mile — is now basically a tunnel without a roof. There's no access on or off the eight-lane road once drivers in either direction clear the mass of exits at each end.

        There are 20-foot-high walls on either side and only a concrete barrier separating each four-lane highway.

The WAY of the future
Getting Around: a map
Opening dates
Easier to drive
Safety: Issues remain
How it got it's name
Timeline of the renovation
Money: where it came from, where it went
        Experts fear the limited access may entice drivers to hit the gas, especially since the speed limit will increase to 55 mph once construction is done. The speed limit was 50 mph in the old configuration, and the limit is being raised to maintain smooth speed between the interstates and because there aren't as many exits to worry about.

        “Speed will be higher through there — there's just no way around that,” says John Deatrick, city transportation director who has overseen the $314 million project. “But our police force is very good at monitoring these things, and we've included them in our planning the entire way.”

        Cincinnati Police Lt. Robert Hungler, who commands the city's traffic unit, says that he plans to monitor traffic himself for the first weeks the highway is open.

        “I'll be standing on one of the bridges with a laser gun to see if there's a problem,” says Lt. Hungler, commander of the city's traffic unit. “And if it gets out of hand, we'll start getting patrol cars out there.”

        The 20-foot-high trench walls present emergency officials other problems. The only ways onto the highway are at either end, and there's no way up or down the walls.

        But unlike sections of Interstates 71 and 75 north of downtown, each direction of the trench will have breakdown lanes 12 feet wide — the same as the travel lanes inside the trench. Each direction will have a breakdown lane on either side, as well.

        Breakdown lanes are non-existent in other places in the city, and much narrower than 12 feet on much of the city's highway system inside I-275.

        “That was a big battle, with the city clamoring for narrower space for more development, but ultimately ODOT (the Ohio Department of Transportation) won out to the benefit of the driver,” says Don Gindling, project engineer for the city.

        That will allow emergency personnel to reach accident sites, people to pull over and someone who runs out of gas to walk to the surface streets, Mr. Deatrick says.

        “We feel the highway will be safer than it was before, and we're not planning any special patrols of that section,” Lt. Hungler says. “We're not worried about getting to someone, and we're not worried about someone not being able to get off the road.”

        John Pohlman, a computer network manager, commutes in and out of downtown from his Independence, Ky. home almost every day. And he predicts that there will be a lot of accidents at either end of Fort Washington Way, where drivers may get confused by the traffic pattern. Those heading east on Fort Washington Way will actually exit right to head north, opposite of the direction they want to go. And those heading west and wanting to exit onto I-71/75 south must bear right.

        “People are going to be mixed up, at least at first, and you're going to see a lot of congestion there,” Mr. Pohlman says. “I'm going to avoid it, because I can just see someone swerving over when they realize they've made a mistake.”

        Mr. Deatrick says designers reconfigured the exit ramps on purpose, because it eliminates a lane change for through traffic.

        Still, he realizes that confusion may reign when the highway opens later this month — that's why he says “there'll be a police officer at every corner” for the first few days, to make sure everyone is going the right way.

        Eventually accident rates will decrease, he says, because of the elimination of the weaving and the redesigned ramps that force drivers to make only one turn of the steering wheel — instead of the three turns drivers used to make on ramps — should cut down further on accidents.

        “We're going to have some people misjudge the turns at first, and some people going the wrong way, and yes, people driving faster,” Mr. Deatrick says. “But this is a much more predictable road system and in the end, it's going to be a lot safer to drive downtown than it used to be.”