Is the Eastern Corridor Project a Trojan Horse for an Extension of I-74?

The Eastern Corridor Program has been part of Cincinnati’s political landscape since 1999. That year the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) completed a Major Investment Study that envisioned construction of a new expressway between I-71 and I-275 and commuter rail service on existing freight railroad tracks as a multi-modal solution to limited east-west travel in eastern Hamilton County.

But are the incremental upgrades planned for Red Bank Road that appeared in the Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) December 21, 2013 Preferred Alternative Implementation Plan part of a long-term plan to extend Interstate 74 across Hamilton County and east to Portsmouth, OH?

A veteran of Cincinnati transportation planning thinks so. Speaking on terms of anonymity, a source claims that he was approached in the mid-1990s by Hamilton County officials and out-of-state toll road builders who sought to extend I-74 from its current terminus in Cincinnati at I-75 to SR 32 in Clermont County.

According to the individual, the Eastern Corridor Program charts a different route for I-74 across Hamilton County but it achieves a similar end. Specifically, it aims to open eastern Hamilton County and Clermont County to development in a way that interstate-quality upgrades to SR 32 east of I-275 could not alone achieve.

Extension of I-74 east to Portsmouth was widely discussed in the Cincinnati media in the early 1990s. On November 11, 1991, The Cincinnati Post reported that the newly passed Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 named “an extended I-74 – and a new I-73 between Detroit and Charleston, SC, through Ohio – as one of 21 high-priority corridors”.

Planning for new sections of I-74 began in the early 1990s in North Carolina, and today 122 miles of I-74 are now open in that state.

While ODOT has never explicitly studied an I-74 extension, it did begin planning I-73 immediately after passage of the highway bill. This planning took place in an unorthodox manner when, in 1991, former Ohio Governor George Voinovich (R) directed the Ohio Turnpike Commission (OTC) – not ODOT – to study construction of a new interstate highway connecting Toledo, Columbus and Portsmouth.

An 80% toll hike in 1995 raised suspicions that construction of I-73 was imminent, however the OTC ended its planning 1997. This event appears to have coincided with West Virginia’s decision to slowly build its section of I-73/74 as a public/private partnership with various coal companies. With the end of I-73 planning also went any expectation that SR 32 might soon be upgraded to I-74 between Cincinnati and Portsmouth.

Since the conclusion of the Ohio Turnpike Commission’s study in 1997, ODOT has not explicitly planned for I-73 or the I-74 extension. However, many of its recent activities are consistent with the OTC’s plans in the 1990s.

On July 22, 2013 Governor John Kasich (R) announced that excess Ohio Turnpike toll revenue will fund construction of the $450 million Portsmouth Bypass, which was part of the Ohio Turnpike Commission’s 1990’s-era I-73 study, and is a critical link in the national I-73/I-74 plan. To be initially signed as SR 823, the Portsmouth Bypass will be a fully grade-separated and access-controlled highway – an interstate highway in everything but name.

No mention of I-73 or an I-74 extension appears on ODOT’s website; but an October 12, 2010 post on the National I-73/I-74 Association’s website named Steven Carter, Director of Scioto County (Portsmouth) Economic Development, as well as two officials from the Toledo area, as attendees at the association’s fall 2010 “Road Rally” in Washington, D.C.

Near Cincinnati, improvements to SR 32 are bringing the roadway closer to Interstate Highway design specifications. A new $32 million interchange is under construction at I-275, and the Clermont County Transportation Improvement District is studying full grade separation and controlled access from Batavia to the Brown County Line.

Within Hamilton County, ODOT divided a possible I-74 route into two separate projects: SR 32 Relocation and Red Bank Road upgrades. At an August 2011 public meeting, ODOT displayed drawings of Red Bank Road reconstructed as a fully grade separated and access controlled expressway. Those drawings do not currently appear on the project’s website.

New drawings shown at ODOT’s Oct 2, 2013 meeting and in its December 21, 2013 report are less ambitious but do not preclude a future full conversion of Red Bank Road into an interstate highway.

The project website states that the relocated SR 32 will “feel like a boulevard or parkway…it will not be a highway like I-71 or I-75”. However, no design feature presented to-date by ODOT prevents relocated SR 32 from being improved to full grade separation and limited access. In the meantime, planning and promotional activities for the future I-74 connecting the Midwest with the coastal Carolinas continue in earnest.

Editorial Note: In the coming weeks, we will publish two follow-up stories related to the Eastern Corridor Program. The first will take an in-depth look at the Portsmouth Bypass and West Virginia portion of the I-74 extension, and the second will provide an updated look at the program’s proposed Oasis Commuter Rail line.

  • Matt Jacob

    When I mentioned the extension of 74 at the Oasis rail meeting to one of the ODOT officials, he just about jumped out of his skin in putting the idea down that any of this was an attempt to extend the highway. I agree with you though that there are pieces being built that clearly demonstrate otherwise.

    That being said I’m not opposed to extending 74 through Red Bank to 275 like many. I think our metro area’s growth East is too limited and that there are advantages to being in the direct path between Chicago and the Carolinas for our manufacturing base. Access to the Atlantic ports more quickly and the truck traffic through will be good for us overall. How we implement it through our city so that it doesn’t adversely hurt our urban growth is the only real question in my mind that still needs answered. I’d prefer a study directly about that, but I understand that they’ll never get it done if they make their intent publicly known.

    • T.E. Shaw

      “there are advantages to being in the direct path between Chicago and
      the Carolinas for our manufacturing base. Access to the Atlantic ports
      more quickly and the truck traffic through will be good for us overall.”

      Cincinnati is already on a direct path between Chicago and Charleston – it runs through I-75 and I-26. Not only would an extended I-74 fail to reduce the travel time to Charleston, it would entirely bypass the “inland port” that’s being established in Greeneville, SC. As for North Carolina, you basically shave an hour by not having to route through Lexington on the way to Charleston, WV. and I-77.

    • Matt Jacob

      Google map from Hampton Roads, VA (8th busiest port) to Chicago and the fastest option is through Cleveland/Pittsburgh with Dayton #2 and Cincy #3. Gotta think that would change with interstate speeds in eastern Ohio vs Ky 9 as it’s a half-hour difference now. Most of the Savannah (19) and Charleston (38) traffic goes through Louisville actually. Greenville too. To truckers these shorter distances and slightly reduced times mean money and they are more likely to come through Cincy with this extension.

      Linking Cincinnati to the NC research triangle is another huge benefit. I’d love to see their talent marching through on the way to Chicago. Who knows they might just stay here once they see what we have.

      IMO not having a good interstate connection to our east has been to our detriment where as Indy and Columbus and even Dayton to an extent have benefited from their connections in all direction. The river has made it harder for us to replicate vs their flat terrain. Access to more people means more money changing hands and more growth.

    • T.E. Shaw

      If the SC and GA traffic is going through Louisville, then I-74 won’t do you any good. All the traffic is still going to take the shorter I-75 and I-26 route. You have a somewhat better case w/r/t Hampton Roads for achieving parity, although I doubt you’ll see a significant advantage. And of course, this is ultimately a question of comparative value. Is it really worth it to spend all that money just to achieve logistical parity on one long haul trucking route? How much development good could that money be put to locally?

    • Matt Jacob

      I’m not saying it would be the best use of money. Just that it would provide a new connection that would help our region as a whole. And I used that one route simply as an example of how it would make sense. If the feds are going to spend that kind of money I’d rather it be here and to connect us like they’ve connected other cities around us.

    • Unless I’m reading the map wrong, I don’t believe I-75 and I-26 cross. Do you mean 75 & 40?

    • T.E. Shaw

      There’s a 100-mile stretch of I-40 involved, but since the other 520 miles are on 75 and 26 I abbreviated the description. Sorry for any confusion.

    • Guest

      The SR 32 reroute project is almost entirely outside of the city and it’s questionable if it will have any direct physical impact on Mariemont or any other urban area other than Newtown. The impacts that might actually stop the project are environmental.

    • BillCollins45227

      Mr. Jacob:

      I live in Madisonville, the community that . . . . you know . . .would be . . . . like destroyed . . . if I-74 is rammed down Red Bank Road as you suggest.

      If you like the idea of spending hundreds and hundreds of million dollars of taxpayers’ money to extend I-74 from Cincinnati to Wilmington, North Carolina, I respect your opinion. I disagree, but I respect your opinion.

      If that extension of I-74 were done, there is no reason that I-74 would need to pass through Madisonville, with a new freeway built through the Little Miami Valley from Red Bank Road south of Columbia Parkway to Eastgage — in the process destroying the beauty of this amazingly beautiful and archaeologically significant valley that serves us so well here on the East Side.

      If I-74 is extended east in the future, it could be accomplished just as the path of I-74 is accomplished around Indianapolis and the path of I-95 is accomplished around Boston. The path of I-74 would come in from the west as it does today, follow the existing route of the I-275 ring road around the City, and then head east through Clermont and Brown Counties following the right of way of the existing Appalachian Highway (Route 32) from its interchange with I-275 to the East. Note that in Indy, I-74 comes in from Cincinnati but does *ram* through the southeastern part of Indy, but instead follows the I-465 ring road clockwise around the city, then heading west from the I-465 ring road near Indianapolis International Airport. In Boston, the highway planners had hoped to ram I-95 through the heart of the City, but back in the 1970s people in Boston neighborhoods organized to stop the destruction of their neighborhoods, winning the battle to route I-95 around the City on the Route 128 ring road while also pushing the authorities successfully to upgrade the Orange Line subway and route it (instead of the I-95 freeway) through this same right-of-way.

      The next time you speak so casually about your desire for a roadway that would destroy a community and destroy the property values of my neighbors and I, you might want to think twice before writing so glibly about this on an online chat board.

    • Matt Jacob

      Please calm down and take a deep breathe… Just expressing my opinion, take it for what you will.
      “How we implement it through our city so that it doesn’t adversely hurt our urban growth is the only real question in my mind that still needs answered. I’d prefer a study directly about that…”

      This was my attempt to quickly address your exact concerns. On a macro level I think extending I-74 makes sense. On the micro level there are definitely issues to work out. I’d rather them study the entire stretch through Madisionville in the light of day, working with the community, and getting it done right rather than ramming it down your throat by piecemeal “improvements” like is actually happening. I understand that they don’t think they could get anything done using this approach, however, I don’t agree with it either.
      There are other alternatives that need to be explored, and redesignating existing highways is a valid way of getting I-74 through Cincinnati to complete the extension in the meantime. We could debate how to do that, but Red Bank Road shouldn’t stop the overall extension.
      However, I do see the need to eventually connect eastern 275 to 71. How that happens is debatable. Extend Ronald Reagan or somewhere through this area make the most sense to me. In a perfect world, I’d save everyone a few minutes with a more direct route by connecting the Red Bank/71 interchange with 32 via the hillside base of Indian Hill bypassing Mariemont and Madisonville and turning hillside land that is hard to build on into something functional (turn on terrain view on google maps for a better visual) or tunneling under Indian Hill. But I’m sure those are just pipe dreams.

    • BillCollins45227

      Mr. Jacob: The “piecemeal” improvements along Red Bank Road that you cited are ones that we in the community have been working on with ODOT for the last three years. This recent document from ODOT is not the final answer (I’m sure we will have more to say to City Council about ODOT’s most recent proposal) but my point is that we in the community have led in this.

      We have moved ODOT and the TID generally in a good direction with the supporter of the Cincinnati City Council, and we have worked co-operatively with people from nearby communities — both City communities and suburban communities. Literally hundreds of people in Madisonville have been part of this, Mr. Jacob. We have worked closely with friends on the Cincinnati City Council — especially with former Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Council members Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young and Amy Murray, and we’ve worked closely with Ohio state representatives Peter Stautberg and Denise Driehaus. Ultimately that’s why the State transportation authorities have started listening to us on these matters during the last few years.

      In your last post, now you are advocating building a new freeway segment along the edge of the beautiful hills that surround Madisonville to the north (towards the Kenwood Country Club and Madeira) and to the east (towards Indian Hill). Those ideas that you are suggesting are very bad ideas, and I’m sure 95% of the people in Madisonville would agree with me on this point. If a freeway were built along these hillsides, that would also degrade life in Madisonville as the sound poured down into the Little Duck Creek and Duck Creek basins where Madisonville is located.

      After this comment, I am not going to have anything more to say to you about this. This type of approach that you are taking today — outsiders like you defining Madisonville with poorly-thought-out infrastructure projects — has been happening here ever since the 1950s. It wasn’t good when government agencies did it then and it isn’t good that you are trying to do it now.

      Please stop. This is the last time I will respond to you. Please stop talking about what’s best for our community.

    • Matt Jacob

      From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like the improvements are still a piece of the overall 74 extension plan. Glad to hear you’ve been involved, but as the article says “New drawings shown at ODOT’s Oct 2, 2013 meeting and in its December 21, 2013 report are less ambitious but do not preclude a future full conversion of Red Bank Road into an interstate highway.” so stay vigilant. Sorry to offend you, but eventually some way some how 275 and 71 will get connected. I’ll stop talking about your community now.

    • BillCollins45227

      Thank you.

    • Eric Douglas

      Bill, we don’t live in a highway-less world where people don’t drive and no cross-county connections are needed. To expand on the anonymous source’s info, the reason Red Bank and SR 32 are now running through frankly poorer areas like Madisonville and Newtown is because Indian Hill successfully pushed cross-county access out of their community before the EC was proposed.

      To act like this project is going to have the same impact on Madisonville as I75 does on Lewisburg, Covington, is insulting to places that are truly wiped away for highways. Keep the good fight in perspective.

    • charles ross

      If Indian Hill had not blocked Cross-County so that it stopped at Montgomery Road, no EC would have been needed.

    • If we could go back and reinvent Cincinnati’s interstate highways, the northern portion of I-275 should have been built where the Cross-County Highway is located today and where the never-built Indian Hill section would have been.

    • Justin

      Why exactly is the Indian hill section so sorely needed when it only cuts about 3.5 miles when traveling on cross county to 275? This is 3 minutes of travel time. Really, is this worth displacing people and lowering property values? And why wouldn’t it be perfectly suitable for traffic on the extended I-74 to be routed on to 275 rather than Destroying Cincinnati’s inner suburbs,

  • These comments follow up on Matt’s and others’, but I wanted to post a new thread as opposed to 3 or 4 different replies.

    There are really 3 issues an Eastern Corridor/I-74 route could alleviate:

    1) Commuter access from I-71 to I-275/east side (and interior communities).

    2) Commercial (truck) access from I-75/I-71 to the east side.

    3) Commuter and commercial (truck) access to port communities via extended I-74 or otherwise.

    First, #1. Red Bank Road serves as an important connector to the east side when coming from the north. But right now, I would argue Red Bank fits the definition of a “stroad.” It either needs a road diet, or a road upgrade. For commuter access, I would argue for a road diet, taking it to a slower, boulevard-type corridor with multi-modal transit. This would of course upset those drivers who simply want to make it through as quickly as possible. But it WOULD entice denser development, and improve transit options for those not tied to a car going 55 mph. In light of the recent development activity along Red Bank, and the recently-passed form-based code plans, a road diet for Red Bank could be very good for both Madisonville and the city of Cincinnati as a whole.

    This hits at issue #2. For commercial drivers going from I-71 (or I-75) to I-275, the Red Bank link makes sense and could be upgraded to interstate standards. But as many have pointed out, the trend in many cities (Indy and Boston were cited) is away from inter-city freeways. There’s no reason a commercial driver coming from the west or north can’t use I-275, and by-and-large I believe increased travel times would be minimal.

    As for issue #3. I grew up in southeastern Ohio along I-77, and vaguely remember when St. Rt. 32 was a two-lane road. I remember it being upgraded in the early 90’s to interstate standards. I have no logistical issue with it being re-branded I-74 from I-275 east, with a few upgrades, to improve access to port cities in Virginia and North Carolina (as well as inner cities like Charlotte and Greensboro). Who pays for this is, of course, a whole different debate. But I agree with Matt that this eastern Interstate link could be important for Cincinnati long-term. (And, it could minimize the strain on the I-75 route across Brent Spence.)

    I look forward to the update on Oasis, now that the HDR study is out and Cincinnatians for Progress has come out against the line. I hope UrbanCincy, which has previously strongly advocated for a Wasson alternative, advocates that the powers that be also study a Wasson alternative with the same intensity. Anyone familiar with Cincinnati knows we need to find a better way to link to the eastern suburbs and Clermont County. But anyone with any knowledge of transportation and development is reading through the Eastern Corridor reports with a great deal of skepticism.

    • In referencing the I-74 extension, I am assuming a line that travels east from I-275, through (or around) Portsmouth, and links with I-64 somewhere around Huntington, WV. This could actually be a (comparably) low-expense highway project that connects Cincinnati to the east coast, while also promoting development in towns along the route.

      I am also assuming we’re not going to the see the I-73 proposal come up again in a very, very long time.

  • I think it’s long past time we study an alternative for the Eastern Corridor. Here’s one potential proposal:

    – Upgrade the #28 bus line, including an express route, along the Oasis line to Fairfax. According to the HDR study the development potential along this route is minimal, and IMO there isn’t enough residential density to support a full-fledged rail line.

    – Introduce an I-71 light rail line to Kenwood, with a Hyde Park station that links to the Wasson Way corridor. Connect a Wasson Way commuter rail through Hyde Park, to a transit station at Fairfax.

    – Consider an extension of this commuter rail along the planned route to Milford, IF a route can be chosen that alleviates concerns of those in Mariemont and Newtown.