Road warrior's task: head off gridlock, tame tie-ups, let it flow

Monday, April 20, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You are not alone as you creep along your morning commute. Charlie Aull feels your pain.

Charlie Aull
Charlie Aull peers through an orange barrel next to the closed ramp at Broadway and Pete Rose Way.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |

He's also there for you when you leave work for home at night. Charlie is a traffic-control investigator. He works the rush-hour beat, checking the aftereffects of orange barrels, barricaded ramps and bad-news signs announcing: "Road Closed" and "Detour." Charlie works for the city. He's been in Cincinnati's traffic engineering division for 24 years.

This year, the lifelong Covedale resident has a special assignment. It's a plum job, if you're into highway construction and traffic flow.

Charlie's the traffic investigator assigned to Fort Washington Way and its $146.9 million renovation. For the next two years, it will be his job to make sure traffic flows as best it can while the road is all torn up.

We're lucky a guy like Charlie is on the case. He hates the sight of red brake lights at rush hour.

Jam buster

Say the words gridlock and traffic jam around him and Charlie's normally smiling face takes a detour.

"We like to look down the road," he says, "and make changes in advance to stop backups before they start."

He does this by regularly checking the progress of the road work being done to prepare for the highway's reconfiguration. He observes the traffic tie-ups caused by the orange barrels and lane closings, and comes up with solutions.

Charlie's been prowling the early stages of the Fort Washington Way project since the first barrels went up last month. Today, if the weather behaves, if the road work is complete and if the signs are in place, Central Avenue will go from being a one-way northbound downtown artery to a two-way street. This will move traffic from the stadium area and act as an alternate route for drivers who normally take Fort Washington Way to reach Interstate 75.

When Central becomes a two-way street, Charlie will be parked by the side of the road in his government-issue white 1990 Chevy Cavalier with 66,000 miles on the odometer. He'll be casing the street to make sure Central Avenue "drives well." That's traffic investigator talk for no -- or at least very few -- traffic snarls. "I'm looking to see that people understand what's going on and how the traffic flows," Charlie says as he eyes drivers warily approaching Central Avenue. "Cars need to get through the intersections on one green light.

"And, drivers must understand the signs. They don't have time to read an entire sentence of instructions."

The signs can't warn drivers with: "You might want to slow down up ahead. And here's why . . . ."

"It has to be simple and direct," Charlie says. "Like, "Do Not Enter.' "

With all the ramp closings leading up to what Charlie calls "the big shutdown" of Fort Washington Way on July 6, some drivers might expect road signs warning: "Abandon All Hope."

"It won't be that bad," Charlie insists as he eases the Chevy into early-morning traffic. "We're not shutting down the city. It'll be close to business as usual. People just have to take alternate routes and stick to them."

As he makes his rush-hour rounds, Charlie prowls the highways in search of lambs and wolves.

Lambs are drivers who "get over as soon as they see the first "Lane Closed Ahead' sign."

Wolves drive more aggressively. "They stay in their lane right up until it's closed. Then they try to dart in."

He wishes everyone would become lambs in seeking detours.

"Drive the alternate routes in advance of the road closings," he advises as he stops by the Reading Road exit off southbound Interstate 71. He watches cars use the new lane of the recently widened exit. After Fort Washington Way closes, this exit will move traffic around downtown.

Before drivers get stuck in traffic, Charlie urges them to dial 211 for the latest traffic reports on the Beat the Jam Hotline.

Wolves can call, too, Charlie says. They shouldn't feel they're deserting the pack.

"They can just tell themselves they're searching for the path of least resistance."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.