Friday, January 14, 2000

City bets $10M on covering Fort Washington Way

No guarantee it will get rest of money to finish the job

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's going to take $10 million in steel and a roll of the dice, but city leaders appear willing to gamble on covering Fort Washington Way.

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        To build a lid over the new-and-improved roadway — a step necessary to transform the downtown riverfront from a concrete wasteland into a green parkland setting — the city has to come up with the money by next week.

        The cash will buy steel beams that will act as the foundation for placing a three-block stretch of grass over the thoroughfare.

        Covering the road would lead traffic into a tunnel, while allowing people to walk over the road from downtown to homes, offices, shops, restaurants or the sports stadiums along the riverfront.

        But that's only if and when it is built.

        Driving the beams into the ground now, while the roadway is torn up, will save more than $14 million in construction costs, not to mention a few million headaches for downtown commuters.

        But the investment amounts to a huge gamble.

        Building the covered walkway over the road would cost an additional $34 million. Although there is wide political support for the covering, no one can say if the money will be there to make it happen.

        If it isn't, the city will have buried that $10 million under a pile of dirt and bedrock.

        “It's a leap of faith,” City Manager John Shirey said Thursday. “I can't say that the covering will happen, but there certainly is a feeling that we should do it.

        “We don't have any time to wait. We've got to commit to it right now.”

        The covering is but the latest addition to a $300.8 million project that includes narrowing and straightening the highway, new sewer lines and a transit center.

        And the cost doesn't end there.

        Once the covering is finished, the city would spend another $12.8 million planting grass and trees to make the concrete lush and green.

        Mr. Shirey said he will find $10 million in idle funds from other city accounts that can be committed to the pilings for the short term, then hope the state and county governments will share in the cost.

        And there is considerable hope for the city recouping some of that initial investment.

        Hamilton County officials are working with the city to come up with a fair split of the cost. And although the Ohio Department of Transportation has said it will not ante up for the project, it looks like the state legislature will.

        Ohio Senate President Richard Finan said he thinks the city can count on that. When asked where the money will come from on such short notice, Mr. Finan said: “We have our ways.”

        Another possibility is that cash could be forthcoming from the park service if the area is turned into a state park.

        A covered Fort Washington Way is significant because it is considered crucial to the entire $248 million development project called The Banks.

        The covering would link the downtown business district with The Banks, an ambitious proposal that would build neighborhood shops, housing, restaurants and office space between the two stadiums.

        And in the center of the oasis would be the Freedom Center museum.

        “It is the cornerstone of this project,” said Tom Humes, a member of the Riverfront Advisors Commission, which came up with the development plan. “We would hope they find a way to advance this money.”

        Whatever the risk, former city Councilwoman Marian Spencer thinks it's worthwhile.

        Mrs. Spencer, of Avondale, moved to the area in 1938 to attend the University of Cincinnati. She has attended presentations on The Banks, and says this is one of the most exciting times she can remember in the city.

        “I think this is right on target,” Mrs. Spencer said. “They've had to change plans in midstream a couple of times, but if it is done right we will be forever grateful.

        “When you go into anything of this magnitude, it's difficult to have all the answers at the beginning. Doing it later will be too late.”

        To put a lid on the road, three rows of steel beams must be driven into the ground, two straddling the roadway and one right down the center.

        In addition to the additional cost, driving the beams into the ground after the road work is completed would be tricky, said Fred Craig, lead consultant for the Fort Washington Way project.

        In some spots, crews would have only 3 feet to drive in the metal beams. In addition, there will be utility cables under the ground, which could get in the way.

        Once the 750 pilings are set, bridge beams would be set atop them and the deck poured.

        The work will begin Feb. 1 and last about two months. It has to start on that date so the construction schedule is not disrupted.

        “Our schedule allows no flexibility,” Mr. Craig said.

        Enquirer reporters Tanya Albert and Michael Hawthorne contributed to this report.

Experts: Riverfront plan needed

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