Whether it is widening Martin Luther King Drive, adding a new interchange, building a new bridge, or adding additional capacity to existing streets throughout our cities, we always hear of the robust traffic growth that is anticipated. If nothing is done, then our communities would be stuck in gridlock.
But how have these projections actually measured up?
According to data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and cross examined with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the traffic growth projections made by departments of transportation all over the country have been wildly off-base for the past decade.
Since the 1980s, traffic on our roadways, as measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has increased by approximately 2.5% annually. That is until the early 2000s when that trend changed rather abruptly. Since 2007, actual VMT has decreased approximately .3% annually. Meanwhile, per capita VMT has fallen sharply.
Many analysts have noticed the trends, but have been cautious to make any judgments about them due to the fact that the change took place around the same time as the Great Recession. The common thought was that people without jobs drive less. Even though most economists, however, have noticed a rebounding economy over recent years, both actual and per capita VMT continues to decline.
The persistent trends may in fact be the new normal for America as Baby Boomers retire and Millennials and subsequent generations continue their pivot away from personal automobile use. If this is the case, it appears that the United States hit peak VMT in 2007.
The implications pose serious policy questions. Presently, most departments of transportation spend most of their money annually on new capacity projects, while letting existing infrastructure crumble. Some policy makers and organizations, like Smart Growth America and President Obama (D), who first proposed such a program during his 2013 State of the Union Address, have advocated for a shift in this position to a ‘Fix-It-First’ approach.
Time will only tell what future trends will show. But as of now we are experiencing, for the first time in our nation’s history, a constant period of decline in terms of the amount of driving we are doing.
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.
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.
Over 55,000 vehicles traverse the storied Western Hills Viaduct. The iconic art deco era viaduct, constructed as part of the Cincinnati Union Terminal project in 1932 replaced the older Harrison Avenue Viaduct.
The viaduct last saw renovation in 1977, almost twenty years after the eastern section was demolished to make way for Interstate 75, but over the last few years a team of city, county and consultant engineers have been studying ways to repair or replace the aging bridge.
The Western Hills Viaduct is one of a few crucial road connections to the west side of the city. Photo by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.
Because of the amount of repairs needed to maintain the existing viaduct, the team is not considering continuing the use of the existing viaduct. Instead the team is looking to build a new viaduct just south of the Western Hills Viaduct.
Richard Szekeresh, Principal Structural Engineer with DOTE told UrbanCincy that there are a number of other projects and factors that constrain the teams ability to determine a suitable relocation alignment; such as the rail yard operations below the bridge, the Metropolitan Sewer District’s (MSD’s) Lick Run Valley Conveyance System project, and Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT’s) proposed new connection bridge from I-75 to the viaduct which is part of the Brent Spence Bridge project must be factored into the new location.
Additionally because of hillside grade issues at the McMillan and Central Parkway intersection a new alignment north of the existing viaduct would be extremely challenging and more expensive.
The team is studying whether to pursue another double-decker bridge or a single level span as the replacement alternative. Some private property will be affected along Harrison Avenue and Central Parkway along with the existing rail yard below the viaduct. Additionally, the team is looking for input on bicycle lanes and other transportation alternative improvements.
The design team hopes to have the engineering completed and a preferred alignment selected by 2014. The cost of the viaduct replacement would be an estimated $200 million. No funding has been identified and the project is not part of the Brent Spence Bridge project, even though it is in the northern edge of that section of the I-75 reconstruction project area.
Both of Thursday’s sessions will be at Cincinnati City Hall. One will be from 4pm to 5:30pm and the other from 6pm to 7:30pm. City Hall is accessible by the #1, #6 and #49 Metro buses.
Szekeresh concluded,“Typically, due to the size, complexity, and cost associated with a project of this nature it is not unusual for it to take ten or more years to bring them to construction. We are still at the beginning of a long process.”
In December 2010, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) published its 2011-2015 Major New Construction Project List. The list included funding to resume study of the highway component of the controversial Eastern Corridor Project. Dormant since 2006, the sudden reappearance of the highway project alarmed area residents, more than 100 of whom gathered at the Madisonville Recreation Center on August 3 for a meeting of Cincinnati City Council’s Livable Communities Committee.
On display were ODOT’s two circa 2006 Tier 1 alternatives, one of which called for the complete replacement of Red Bank Road with a fully grade separated interstate-style highway. This drawing, seen for the first time by most in attendance, emboldened suspicions that the Eastern Corridor Project is in fact a veiled attempt to extend Interstate 74 across Hamilton County.
“We urge ODOT to unbundle the Eastern Corridor projects and concentrate on providing transportation alternatives in this community, not another highway,” exclaimed one resident at the recent City Council committee meeting. “Reallocating resources to utilize the Wasson Line will produce more cost-effective transportation alternatives for thousands including Madisonville citizens.”
Citizen feedback generally welcomed improvements to Red Bank Road, especially a boulevard or parkway that might compare favorably to the more attractive roads in the area. Many also suggested development of better public transportation, especially implementation of light rail transit on the abandoned Wasson Road railroad.
Opposition to construction of an expressway in place of Red Bank Road was unanimous at the meeting, and citizen comments were followed by stern questioning of ODOT officials by City Council members Roxanne Qualls, Laure Quinlivan and Chris Bortz.
ODOT assured the committee that the Tier 1 alternatives on display would be reworked and that it will work closely with Madisonville Community Council and other neighborhood groups to ensure a favorable outcome. ODOT officials also remarked that the City of Cincinnati and other jurisdictions through which the Eastern Corridor Project will pass will have to approve ordinances to allow its eventual construction.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $776 million for urban and rural transit providers in 45 states. The money is intended to help bring buses, bus facilities, and other related equipment into a “state of good repair.” The grant money will reportedly support 152 projects across the country.
“Safety is our highest priority, and it goes hand-in-hand with making sure our transit systems are in the best working condition possible,” Secretary LaHood stated on Monday. “The millions of people who depend on transit each day to get to work, to school or to the doctor expect a safe and comfortable ride.”
No money was awarded to Cincinnati-area transit agencies, although Metro officials say that they are working with the state to hopefully receive some of that money.
The money could not be more needed according to transit officials who state that more than 40 percent of the nation’s buses are currently in poor to marginal condition. According to the National State of Good Repair Assessment Study released in June 2010, the $776 million included in this announcement will not come close to funding the estimated $78 billion worth of repairs needed to bring the nation’s rail and bus transit systems into a state of good repair.
In Cincinnati, Metro officials say that money is always needed to replace buses in their fleet as they reach the end of their 12-year life cycle. Through this program, the agency had requested funding to replace the system’s nearly 20-year-old farebox technology.
“New fareboxes would allow us to not only improve the accuracy of our ridership data for planning purposes, but also introduce new fare media like day passes that could be purchased on the bus, stored value passes, and more,” Metro’s chief public affairs officer, Sallie Hilvers, told UrbanCincy. “We have some federal grant funding now, but hope to secure the full amount in the coming year.”