Reconstruction of Fort Washington Way Redefined Cincinnati’s Urban Core

Fort Washington Way might be better known to some Cincinnatians as the I-71/US-50 trench through downtown Cincinnati, but few might know the full story behind how the current area came to be what it is today. Every Wednesday this July, UrbanCincy will cover a part of the history of Fort Washington Way, its construction, the political fights that came with it, and the potential future for the area. Furthermore, the unprecedented foresight that the engineers, politicians, and public alike demonstrated through the construction will be highlighted.

The City of Cincinnati developed where it is today because of its location on the Ohio River. The river served as the primary economic engine for the city and therefore the larger region. As such, the fact that Fort Washington Way bisects the urban core from the riverfront troubles individuals who wish to see the city become whole once again. However, it is important to remember what the stretch of land looked like prior to major renovations a decade ago.

In 1998, construction began on the approximately 1.25-mile stretch of highway. Originally, the plan included burying the stretch of highway completely in order to hide the highway eyesore from the remainder of downtown. However, that idea was overturned in 1996 because many people wanted to ensure that visitors to the city would be able to see it as they traveled through. New plans were completed and construction began.

In 1999, after more than two-thirds of the renovations were complete, there was renewed interest in burying the highway. Proponents claimed that a buried highway would ensure an uninterrupted transition from downtown to the riverfront. The engineers knew that they wouldn’t be able to finish the project on time and on budget if they changed the project so late, so they compromised by sinking the roadway below the level of the rest of downtown’s street grid. Part of this compromise included driving extraordinarily strong support piles into the ground that were engineered to hold caps that could eventually cover the highway if the decision was made to do so at a later date.

The current gaps between segments of the street spanning over Fort Washington Way are spaced such that caps 600 feet wide could be installed with relative ease and with a gap between segments. Gaps ensure that the area is not officially a tunnel, and as a result, the dangers and costs associated with the fire safety precautions of a tunnel are avoided. Engineers state that the pilings supporting the caps could withstand the weight of several feet of dirt, making an unique and exciting urban park possible. Furthermore, the caps could support the weight of buildings approximately four stories high. The latter options would provide the opportunity to link The Banks development with the rest of downtown abutting the current trench.

The major change in the 1998 redesign came by untangling and streamlining the mess of highway on- and off-ramps. Doing so allowed the roadway to carry a greater capacity, increase safety, and dramatically decrease the total width of Fort Washington Way. Once construction was completed, about 40% of the original width was gone as a result of the better design. The space that was saved freed up room for the Great American Ball Park, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Paul Brown Stadium and much of The Banks development.

In the next three weeks, UrbanCincy will highlight how this transformation took place. In the process, we will show how the city demonstrated an unprecedented level of foresight, saving current and future taxpayers untold sums of money. The inter-jurisdictional cooperation that this project achieved set the stage for the redesigned area to win more than a dozen national and international awards.

As one engineer told me: “We weren’t highway building. We were city building.” Check back each Wednesday in July to learn more about how Fort Washington Way project impacted current and future development.

  • Behold! These are the boondoggles that city and county leaders spent your stadium tax dollars on. Not only did they fail to save us “untold sums of money,” they are the reason the fund is insolvent. Thanks to their “foresight,” you will now be faced with a choice to either sacrifice the indigent care levy, cut core programs, or raise sales taxes which hit the poor the hardest.

    We voted for two stadiums only.
    Not a freedom center boondoggle.
    Not a transit center boondoggle.
    Not an almost-tunnel boondoggle.
    Not a highway boondoggle.
    Not a Banks boondoggle.

    This whole group of projects is a city and county embarrassment, and could wind up costing Cincinnati at least one of her major league teams.

  • The reconstruction of Fort Washington Way has paved the way for hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment, created thousands of permanent and temporary jobs, and redefined Cincinnati’s central riverfront which had been choked off for many years.

    While COAST may not find a vibrant city center to be an important issue, many do and many studies indicate that an economically successful region is only as successful as its heart.

    Traffic has been improved, the environment has been improved, economic development has been sparked, jobs created, tourism grown, residents increased and future possibilities of even greater opportunities created. Oh wait, I mean boondoggle.

  • Zaphod

    COAST would be perfectly happy with a wide, ugly, at-grade expressway separating the stadiums from the rest of Downtown. They don’t really care about the vibrancy or walkability of Downtown. After all, only one COAST officer even lives within the Cincinnati city limits.

  • Scott Griffith

    I am thankful for FTWW every time I traverse the south side of the city. Seamlessly connects 71/75/471/Columbia and allows for pretty easy transit from one side of the city to the other. Traffic is rarely a problem and the street level is very walkable. Interstate transition optimizations are the not most sexy of capital investments, but FTWW continues to pay dividends.

  • Anti-Coast

    COAST, please jump off the Purple People Bridge.


    City of Cincinnati, and the people who want it to thrive.

  • Jake

    if I didn’t know COAST was an organization, I would’ve guessed it was a 12 yr old internet troll

  • That’s inappropriate, Anti-COAST. I agree with the general sentiment, but please keep it kosher. Thanks.

  • Curt

    With the maturity level of COAST I’m surprised we didn’t see a “FIRST!!!” comment, as a bunch of middle aged men sitting around a computer giggled with delight.

    As someone who couldn’t drive until after Ft.WW was completed, I think it makes driving through the city a breeze. Looking at the mess of ramps before i can’t imagine trying to go 471 to 74 or 75 to Columbia Parkway.

  • Matt G

    In Columbus a freeway cap was placed over interstate 670 where is crosses High street. If you’ve never been to area, High Street is the major urban spine of Columbus connecting some of the city’s best neighborhoods. Before the cap interstate 670 basically disconnected the downtown and the Short North, one of Columubs’s most distinctive areas. The freeway pit that was 670 kept people from walking over it and acted like a wall keeping the two areas separated.

    Adding the cap changed all that by joining the two into one continuous and vibbrant urban neighborhood. The amount of investment and growth that has happened because of it has been unbelievable and now the Colummbus is looking to cap the 71/70 on the south end of downtown. Its been that much of a hit. Adding a larger cap in Cincy would be a tremendous asset to the riverfronts redevelopment.

  • Matt G:

    I have seen the cap over 670 in Columbus several times. It is nice because it accomplishes what you just said, but due to the lack of support abilities the architecture had to be cheapened to that Cheesecake Factory design seen there now.

    Columbus’ “cap” is also interesting because it is less of a cap in my mind, and more like an extension/widening of the bridge over the highway. The added portions allowed for the structures to be built and thus hide the highway.

  • Matt G


    Your right the architecture of the shops on top could be a lot better but that’s it only real failing. Its connected two neighborhoods in a way that no one thought posible and shows what could be done in a city with real urban fabric like Cincy. With the stronger support pilings along Ft. Washington Way Cincinnati has options Columbus never had. We just need area leaders and ODOT to be bolder!

  • Very interesting idea for a series! I never realized that there was the possibility to cap the area. Looking forward to learning more!

  • Justin

    Looking forward to this series!

  • Igon

    From what I recall of the reconstruction, much of the reason the pilings exist is because Uncle Carl Lindner stepped forward with I think the $500,000 in financing that was required to put them in place during construction, rather than after, which would have cost considerably more. I’m not sure of the logistics of the deal or how Carl was paid back but I can remember reading about this in the Enquirer back in the day. Obviously as a stakeholder and land owner downtown, he also had his own financial interests in mind, but his “generosity” helped ensure the future connectivity between the Banks and downtown. Randy, can you verify this?

  • Igon:

    I can not fully remember right now, but I do remember a couple of critical financing pieces falling into place at the last moments in order to make the pilings happen during the time of construction instead of after. I’ll do some digging and see if I can confirm or deny that claim.

  • Susan Morell

    Well researched and informational. I am looking forward to the remainder of the series.

  • Igon –

    I was looking back through my notes from my interviews with the engineer. He mentioned while we were talking that Carl Linder did indeed contribute some funding specifically for the support piles to be driven during construction. While I do not have the exact amount that Mr. Linder contributed nor the repayment agreement (if any), I can tell you that the additional cost of adding stringer supports was $10 million. If they were to be done today, it would cost about $30 million, according to the engineer. The increased costs come from the fact that costs rise as years pass, and that there are additional costs associated with tearing apart something that is currently functioning as opposed to starting with a blank slate. As more and more years pass, the price tag for that construction will continue to rise, demonstrating just how brilliant of an investment this was for the city.

    I apologize for not catching that tidbit sooner,

  • Igon

    Thanks David. Yeah I thought $500K seemed low. I appreciate the homework.

  • Matt J

    Matt G,

    I went to OSU and have lived around the caps that they have on 670. Many people who visit don’t even realize that there is a highway nearby until you point it out to them. There are also other advantages such a cutting down noise because of the way that the buildings on the sides act as sound walls. Looking at the overview picture above it looks like they were planning something similar with bookend building on the sides of a 4 block park.


  • Matt J

    Taking a second look at that overview above, I’d really love to see Cincinnati connect back to the river completely by getting that marina west of Paul Brown started ASAP.


  • leif

    I am so grateful to have a site so excited about Cincinnati. Since i don’t want to mention names of those who’d rather be negative (it’s like rebuking a misbehaving 6 year old– they just like to hear you say their name), i’ll just say that none of us would want to read an “Anti-Urban Cincy blog”.

    I would have voted for the Freedom Center any day.

  • df

    I don’t think the stadium tax paid for any of the highway improvements, transit centers nor freedom center

  • drew

    boondoggle makes you all sound like grandpa simpson. get out of town and crawl back into your hole slitherman. (and stop accusing us gays of “barking up your tree” nobody thinks your cute…or smart)