Everything You Need to Know About the Proposed Elmore Street Viaduct

In the mid-2000s, ODOT designed a $1 billion reconstruction of I-75 between the Ohio River and I-275 that attracted little attention from the Cincinnati media. Who would win and who would lose as access points were shifted, added, or permanently closed?

Aside from a successful effort in 2006 by OKI to retain access at Galbraith Road over ODOT’s objections, virtually no public objections were made as multi-million dollar contracts were let; and work commenced in 2011 on a mega-project that will shape Cincinnati’s traffic patterns and property values for the next fifty years.

ODOT’s design strategy for the Mill Creek Expressway (Western Hills viaduct to Paddock Rd.) and Thru the Valley (Paddock Rd. to I-275) projects aimed to improve capacity and safety by reducing points of access and mitigating complex merging movements. This means most of I-75’s left-side ramps will be rebuilt as right-side ramps, and odd partial interchanges, such as the Towne Street ramps in Elmwood Place and the famous southbound “canyon” ramps in Lockland, will be permanently removed.

ODOT has already closed a lightly-used ramp providing access to I-75 southbound from Spring Grove Avenue, and another exiting I-74 westbound at Powers Street in Northside.

In 2016, ODOT plans to permanently close two ramps near Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. One provides access to I-75 northbound from Central Parkway, while the other provides access to Central Parkway from I-74. The planned closure of this final ramp – an unremarkable 250-foot deck girder overpass spanning I-75 near the Ludlow Viaduct – has been public knowledge for nearly a decade, but only recently has its closure generated opposition.

Evidence suggests that replacement of Central Parkway access from I-74 was discussed in the mid-2000s via an aerial structure approximately 10 times longer than the current 250-foot overpass. A drawing from February 2007 illustrates that the flyover ramp would have diverged from I-74 near the Colerain and Beekman Street interchange, bridged Elmore Street, then deposited traffic onto Central Parkway very close to the location of the current ramp.

Despite an effort led by Cincinnati State and then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) several years ago, ODOT has not capitulated to recent pleas by Cincinnati State and the City of Cincinnati to reestablish the access provided by the existing 250-foot exit ramp with a similar ramp forking from the planned I-74 east to I-75 north ramp.

Such a ramp would not comply with current Federal Highway Administration guidelines, which discourage local access ramps built in close proximity to “system” interchanges, and local access ramps that diverge or join system interchange ramps. In fact, construction of a new ramp similar to what currently exists would violate Section 6.2.11 and Section 6.2 of FHWA code.

ODOT’s refusal to permit reconstruction of the I-74 ramp to Central Parkway, however, is inconsistent with its recent activities elsewhere in the state.

As part of the $200+ million reconstruction of the I-71/I-670 interchange in Columbus, an exit ramp to Leonard Avenue, a local residential street, was built in the middle of a “system” interchange. No reciprocal access to I-71 south was built, meaning this new ramp violates two sections of the FHWA’s guidelines and created a new situation identical on paper to the one ODOT seeks to eliminate in Cincinnati.

Access to Cincinnati State Community College from I-74 after 2017
In 2015, the City of Cincinnati, with the endorsement of Mayor John Cranley (D), outlined plans for an entirely new 2,500-foot viaduct connecting Elmore Street in South Cumminsville with Central Parkway at Cincinnati State. Ostensibly the proposed viaduct will restore the easy access from I-74 that Cincinnati State will lose in 2017; and, according to Cincinnati State President O’Dell Owens, help attract and retain students who commute from the city’s western suburbs.

To be sure, the proposed viaduct will improve access to I-74 westbound, as no direct access currently exists. But inbound travel will be significantly slower than what presently exists, and not much faster than what would exist if it weren’t built at all.

Perhaps the Elmore Street Viaduct, or something similar to it, could have been better integrated with the I-74 Beekman Street ramps if access to Central Parkway had been deemed a priority 10 years ago – instead ODOT completed a significant rebuilt of the interchange in 2014 with no provision for a new viaduct to Central Parkway.

Access to Cincinnati State Community College from I-75 after 2017
Missing from the Elmore Street Viaduct conversation, however, is the character of Cincinnati’s access from I-75. Currently, commuters from city’s northern neighborhoods must pass Cincinnati State on southbound I-75, exit at Hopple Street, then backtrack one mile north along Central Parkway. Commuters using I-75 north must exit a mile south of the college, traverse the new jug handle connection between Martin Lurther King Drive and Central Parkway, then drive one mile north.

If the current circuitous path I-75 commuters use to reach Cincinnati State isn’t discouraging attendance by prospective students from those neighborhoods, why does President Owens contend that use of the very same Hopple Street exit ramp will discourage I-74 commuters?

Why No Ludlow Avenue Interchange?
Missing from I-75’s initial 1950s construction, and its current reconstruction, is a full interchange at Ludlow Avenue. A new diamond interchange on the Ludlow Viaduct would have created ideal access to Cincinnati State, a new alternative route to the University of Cincinnati and the hospitals, and significantly increased property values in Northside.

Construction of a new interchange at Ludlow Avenue does not appear to have entered into ODOT’s conversations a decade ago, nor did construction of an interchange at Vine Street in St. Bernard.

MetroMoves and the Future of the Rapid Transit Right-of-Way
In 2002, Hamilton County voters defeated MetroMoves, a half-cent sales tax that would have funded improved countywide bus service and construction of various modern streetcar and light rail lines. The initiative planned for the convergence of two light rail lines above the I-75/I-74 interchange that would have provided direct access to Cincinnati State via a station located on the west face of its hill above Central Parkway.

The convergence of two lines just north of the property promised frequent train service for the community college, even during off-peak hours; however, no call for improved public transportation has been heard from those currently pushing for the Elmore Street Viaduct.

What’s more, there has been no call to incorporate a provision for rail transit on the proposed Elmore Street Viaduct. When looking at ODOT’s 2007 drawing, it is plain to see how the proposed structure could be integrated into the light rail network, thus eliminating the high expense of a dedicated light rail viaduct over the I-75/74 interchange in the future.

Meanwhile, ODOT’s reconstruction of I-75 will leave the old Rapid Transit Loop right-of-way mostly intact between the subway portals and Cincinnati State – meaning only a 100-foot bridge over Marshall Avenue will be necessary to construct a fully grade-separated surface line between the subway portals and Cincinnati State.

EDITORIAL NOTE: After this article was published, Mayor John Cranley’s office, through spokesperson Kevin Osborne, contacted UrbanCincy and provided additional information regarding the efforts of then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls to piece together funding for a smaller, yet similar project years ago. This article has been updated to reflect that reality.

Complete Streets are more equitable, safer and improve economic outcomes

Over the past several years the idea of taking a new approach toward designing our public streets has been gaining traction. For many decades roads were built almost exclusively for people driving cars. But historically speaking, streets have always been much more egalitarian – accommodating all modes of transportation of the time.

While the idea of designing streets for all users has gained attention, it has not always gained supporters. This includes Cincinnati where a Complete Streets policy has yet to be realized. More from Streetsblog USA:

Redesigning streets to make room for people is a no brainer. “Complete streets” projects that calm traffic and provide safe space for walking and biking save money, reduce crashes and injuries, and improve economic outcomes. Need further convincing? Smart Growth America has done some number crunching, looking at the impact of 37 complete streets projects from communities across the country. 

City Officials to Present Alternatives for Two-Way Street Conversions in Walnut Hills

City officials are moving forward with potential changes to E. McMillan Street and William Howard Taft Road in East Walnut Hills. The proposed changes are a continuation of other improvements that have been made in the area in recent years, and will be presented to the public at an open house meeting on Tuesday, November 18.

Developed by planners and engineers at Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE), the improvements being considered include two-way street conversions of E. McMillan Street and William Howard Taft Road between Victory Parkway and Woodburn Avenue, and Woodburn Avenue between E. McMillan Street and Taft Road.

The proposal is an extension of two other two-way street conversions that were completed in 2012.

According to community leaders, the projects are seen as an opportunity to better connect the business districts of Walnut Hills and East Walnut Hills.

“The two-way conversion would make the two neighborhoods much more connected and make the distance between DeSales Corner and Peeble’s Corner more walkable,” explained Kevin Wright, Executive Director of Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “Our goal is to make the two districts more connected. Imagine grabbing a pizza at Fireside and then walking down to Myrtle’s Punch House, with a stop at Brewhouse along the way.”

The idea of converting one-way streets to two-way travel is one that has been gaining traction nationwide amongst residents and business owners looking to slow traffic and improve access within their communities.

While former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) had pushed for the conversion of the one-way streets in Walnut Hills to two-way travel, there have also been a number of other conversions throughout Over-the-Rhine in recent years, including the ongoing effort to transition Main Street back to two-way traffic.

City planners, however, say that the two-way street conversions are not the only improvements being proposed. Other components include the typical streetscape enhancements, as well as some gateway features for the neighborhood business districts. All of the proposed changes, they say, are the result of recent conversations and feedback from neighborhood residents and stakeholders.

“The stretch of McMillan between Park Avenue and Woodburn, currently, is very auto centric,” Wright conceded. “Our hope is that this is one of many changes that will be put in place over the next few years to make that area more walkable.”

Greg Koehler, Senior Economic Development Analyst at Cincinnati’s Department of Trade & Development, says that the open house will be held at the Keller Student Center at St. Ursula Academy. The event will run from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. Official presentations will be made at 5:45pm and 6:45pm, but City staff will be on-hand throughout the entire meeting to answer any questions regarding the plans.

City officials were unable to provide UrbanCincy with the drawings of the proposed changes ahead of the meeting. Those interested in reviewing the detailed plans are encouraged to attend the open house scheduled for Tuesday, November 18. The meeting location is highly accessible via Metro bus service, and free bike parking is located at the school.

CNU22: Cincinnati Wins National Planning Award for Form-Based Code

The City of Cincinnati’s Department of Planning & Buildings has been on a roll lately. This past weekend in Buffalo, at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) national conference, the city won its third national award of the year for its new form-based code.

CNU’s grand prize for the Best Planning Tool or Process was actually a tie and thus jointly awarded to Cincinnati for its form-based code (FBC) and Station Center, a transit-oriented development in Union City, California.

As first reported by UrbanCincy, the Department of Planning & Buildings was honored with the Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan at the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference in Atlanta.  Additionally, in late 2013, the Department won the Ohio APA’s award for Comprehensive Planning for a Large Jurisdiction.

In 2012, city leaders were also awarded with the Frank F. Ferris II Community Planning Award from the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission.

In addition to city staff and thousands of Cincinnatians, those involved in developing Cincinnati’s award-winning FBC included Opticos Design, Hall Planning & Engineering, Urban Design Associates, glaserworks, Wise Economy Workshop, and Urban Fast Forward.

“It is an honor for us to have our code recognized by an organization that is on the cutting edge of best practices with regard to planning tools and good urbanism,” said Alex Peppers, senior city planner for Cincinnati. “We put a lot of work into developing a code that would fit our context and assets.”

What makes Cincinnati’s FBC unique is that it is a voluntary tool for neighborhoods who seek to preserve the character of their centers of activity and historic business districts. Thus far, it has been adopted in College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills and Westwood.

Jurors noted that they were particularly impressed by the code’s extensive photo documentation and mapping analysis that calibrated the code’s application, and reinforced the unique characteristics of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.

“The Cincinnati code is an excellent example of that advancement in the deployment of SmartCode, with particular attention paid to public process, neighborhood structure and graphic presentation,” explained Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of CNU’s award jurors. “It reinforces Cincinnati’s historic urban patterns with guidance for appropriate infill and predictable redevelopment building.”

The final draft of Cincinnati’s form-based code is available online and can be accessed here.

On the twelfth official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Roxanne Qualls to discuss Cincinnati’s development and implementation of form-based codes. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free.

Cincinnati’s Streetcar Victory a Decade in the Making

The final, final, final vote for the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar took place today. Perhaps by now you all know the outcome. A six-person veto-proof super-majority voted to continue construction. Cincinnati, as Mayor John Cranley (D) said today, will have a streetcar.

What is important in this moment is to realize that everyone involved lived up to their campaign promises. Wendell Young (D), Chris Seelbach (D) and Yvette Simpson (D) stood strong in their support of the project – even in the face of uncertain outcomes.

At the same time, Christopher Smitherman (I), Amy Murray (R) and Charlie Winburn (R) held true to their promises to oppose the streetcar no matter what. They were the three lone votes against restarting construction.

Construction work will soon resume on Cincinnati’s $133M streetcar project. Photographs by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

Then there are the three council members who campaigned on taking a serious look at the numbers and making a prompt decision about whether to cancel the project or proceed. P.G. Sittenfeld (D), David Mann (D) and Kevin Flynn (C) all did that once they saw the numbers in detail. Cancelling a project this far along would have been fiscally irresponsible, and they voted true to their campaign promises to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars.

UrbanCincy has been covering this project since we started the website back in 2007. Our original coverage focused on redevelopment efforts in Downtown and then Over-the-Rhine, but the streetcar quickly became a big part of that redevelopment narrative. It is no secret that we are strong supporters of the project and believe it will improve mobility in the center city and set the city on a path toward building the regional rail system everyone seems to now desire.

There are many people responsible for getting Cincinnati to this stage, but the biggest credit must absolutely be given to John Schneider. If it were not for his unrelenting leadership on this issue over the past decade, we would not be anywhere close to where we are now.

The emergence of Mayor Mark Mallory (D) then gave the city a prominent leader to push the project forward, and Mallory leaned on the expertise and leadership of former City Manager Milton Dohoney and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) to get it all done.

It is important to keep in mind that the person who first pushed for the Uptown extension to be included in phase one was in fact Roxanne Qualls. The Uptown Connector was never part of the original phase one plan, but was added in later as “Phase 1b” at the urging of Qualls, who then worked with Mallory and then Governor Ted Strickland (D) to secure state funding to make that happen.

Hard fought victories in 2009 and 2011 helped keep the project alive, but also delayed it and ran up the project’s costs. Those delays also allowed enough time for Governor John Kasich (R) to assume office and pull the $52 million in state funding Ohio had originally pledged.

So while Qualls’ leadership and vision to have the first phase include the Uptown Connector is not being realized at this exact moment, our attention must now turn to extending the streetcar line to neighborhoods in Uptown as quickly as possible.

Cincinnati Regional Rail Plan
The first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system is a small part of a much larger regional rail plan envisioned by leaders. Map provided by OKI Regional Council of Governments.

A new wave of leaders and organizers has emerged in Cincinnati as a result of this most recent battle over the streetcar project. This includes the heroic efforts of Eric Avner and the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation for drumming up private support to contribute $9 million toward the project’s ongoing operations.

Their hard work and courage should certainly be commended, but let’s also not forget the people who have been pounding the pavement on behalf of the streetcar since the beginning. Most Cincinnatians in 2007 did not know what a streetcar was, much less a modern one and the benefits it would bring. The hard work put in by those people early on was necessary.

This movement was not built overnight and these supporters are not fair-weather fans of the city. The movement has grown in size and grown more sophisticated over the past decade and is now stronger than ever.

You too can join this urbanist movement in Cincinnati.

We gather at the Moerlein Lager House around the first Thursday of every month to host URBANexchange – an urbanist networking and social event. We also partner with the Niehoff Urban Studio at the University of Cincinnati to study complex issues facing our city and engage the public in that dialog. Please join us at our next URBANexchange and pay us a visit in Corryville for our next event with the Niehoff Urban Studio.

Now is a time to celebrate and reflect. But it is not the time to get complacent. There are more issues to address and this energy that saved the streetcar needs to be redirected there. Congratulations, Cincinnati! Let’s get to work.