Tuesday, October 28, 1997
Teflon road, urban fable

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Today, Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway will become just another road, and I, for one, will miss the drama. For two generations, it has been a four-lane land of opportunity for attorneys, grist for neighborhood rumor mills and a dependable source of controversy.

Maybe this little stretch of concrete was trying to tell us something. Maybe it was saying that the world would not come to an end if West-Siders couldn't get a hideously expensive handbag from the East Side within 20 minutes.

Or that, despite the fact that one might catch sight of a linebacker at the Precinct, Maury's Tiny Cove would do nicely for West-Siders in the mood for a very good steak.

Maybe it was trying to tell us to slow down and spend our transportation money on something besides the automobile. Maybe it really was an urban fable and cautionary tale.

If so, we ignored it.

The Indian Hill exit

Conceived as a benign east-west link from the industrial Mill Creek Valley to the Blue Ash Airport, Cross County became considerably more. After airport plans moved to Northern Kentucky, the route expanded to connect the eastern and western edges of a proposed beltway.

Then somebody noticed that the leg from Montgomery Road to I-275 east would run through the middle of Indian Hill.

With remarkably little discussion, it was determined that a highway from I-71 on the east to I-275 on the west would be just about all the roadway anybody would ever need. More than enough, really. When residents of Mount Healthy and North College Hill said they weren't exactly sure that this highway was in their best interests, the state legislature passed a bill designating it a state highway. Then it became none of their personal beeswax.

Except, of course, that about 200 of their personal homes were razed in the interest of progress, and they got an up-close-and-personal look at construction. A long look. And during the years of hearings and protests, they probably got to know their neighbors very personally. Then the city and the county started fighting over money for the roads to service Riverfront Stadium. Several businesses complained that they were not being paid enough to relocate.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

In 1972, the Enquirer reported that ''Hamilton County's slowest moving road may never be finished. Construction costs have almost tripled the original $30 million estimate for the entire project.'' Final price tag for the 16.4 miles is more than $135 million. This does not, I believe, count legal fees.

The Gipper's highway

The highway survived a construction strike, fill-dirt controversies, silt runoff, protests from the Sierra Club about wetland destruction, sewer line disputes, and a cemetery and a racetrack in its path. Construction once was threatened by claims that the habitat of the endangered cave salamander would be disturbed.

It became a joke, a one-liner, a highway that couldn't make both ends meet.

Then in March 1993, at the urging of local Republicans, the all-GOP Hamilton County commissioners added the name Ronald Reagan to the unfinished Cross County Highway.

But a highway by any other name, even a name rather beloved in this county, was still a plan hatched in 1948. Before air quality indexes or light rail. So now, one of the last urban highways to be built in America is open for business and pleasure. You can drive your personal vehicle across Hamilton County in 17 minutes instead of 40. Today.

In 1999, we will begin to repair the stretch that opened in 1958. And the Ronald Reagan Highway, site of a hundred - no, a thousand - chances to do something better, will become just another place to stack orange barrels.


Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.