Sunday, November 12, 2000

Year after work, road still dangerous

Congestion, wrecks on rise

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT WRIGHT — It took 10 years and $106 million to widen and straighten 6.5 miles of highway once known for its “Death Hill” and treacherous S-curve.

        But one year after construction ended, accidents are on the rise, speeding is as bad as ever, and congestion has increased.

        So much for making driving safer and easier on the new and improved Interstate 71/75 between Covington and Florence, the major traffic artery connecting Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

[photo] Rebuilt Interstate 71/75, looking south from the Brent Spence Bridge, has seen an increase in accidents since 1995.
(Patrick Reddy photos)
| ZOOM |
        "It's going to get worse and worse,” says Covington Police Specialist George Russell, who has been patrolling the interstate for the past decade. “It's either jammed up or people have road rage or are driving way too fast.”

        An Enquirer review of six years of accident data and speeding citations between mile markers 186-192 (Buttermilk Pike to the Brent Spence Bridge) shows that:

        • One in every 35 speeding citations written by Kenton County Police was for 80 mph or above in July 1996. In July 2000, the ratio was one in 12 along the stretch, where the speed limit is 55 mph.

        • In 1995, there were 423 accidents. Through October of this year, there have been 576.

        • There were 82 accidents involving injuries in 1998, the first year with complete statistics. This year is on pace to surpass that, with 70 accidents with injuries through October.

        Congestion also is worsening. According to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, one section through Covington handles 137,000 vehicles daily, compared with 100,000 in 1990. Today's volume is fast approaching the 139,080 vehicles daily predicted for 2008.

        About 144,000 vehicles use a 1.4-mile section of the S-curve daily, already surpassing the projected 125,000 traffic count for 2007. In 1990, the number of daily vehicles was 110,000.

History of Death Hill and the S-curve
        “Even when there's not an accident, it's always backed up in the morning,” says Tom Kriege, who commutes daily from Independence to downtown Cincinnati. “When there's not a backup, I normally try to keep it under 70 mph, usually about 65. And people still are flying by me. If you don't keep track, they're right on your tail and won't get off.”

        Death Hill and the S-curve were part of the original alignment of I-75 through Northern Kentucky from Covington to Florence. The stretch of road opened in 1962 and cost $17.8 million, excluding right-of-way costs, after its design was changed several times to suit residents and businesses.

        It never did meet U.S. Department of Transportation standards for a hilly interstate, much less an urban artery.

        The S-curve, which still exists but is tamer, runs through Fort Mitchell, Fort Wright and Crescent Springs. The original consisted of two consecutive 6-degree curves. The curves were so sharp that tractor-trailers taking the turns too fast were known to tip over on passing cars.

Resembled bobsled run

        Death Hill was a 1.3-mile section of road that's better known today as the “cut in the hill” for its slice through the banks of the Ohio River, crossing through Covington and Park Hills. The section was known for its curving steep grade that resembled a bobsled run.

        Through the years, the highway saw many fatal accidents, although official statistics prior to 1990 are not available. There have been eight fatalities on the road since 1996, including one this year.

        Reconstruction began on the highway in 1990, and Death Hill went first in a project that ended in 1994. Workers removed part of a bad curve and lessened the grade.

        In 1996, construction began on the S-curve. Workers straightened it and lessened the grade to 4 degrees from 6 degrees. Workers removed the orange barrels for daytime traffic on Nov. 4, 1999.

        That marked the first time in nearly 10 years that the main highway through Northern Kentucky was construction-free and had mostly four lanes southbound and three lanes northbound.

        Charles Meyers, chief engineer for the Kentucky Highway Department's District 6, says that after construction of the original highway, the project was the largest road project in Northern Kentucky's history.

        “And it was much more expensive than the original, too,” Mr. Meyers says. “People got their money's worth.”

No speed check
        Authorities who respond to accidents along the highway say it's safer.

        But they also say the improved interstate entices drivers to speed more often and that speeding is the major cause of increased accidents.

        “In 1995 and 1996, we were out there with federal overtime money, and the accidents were way down,” Crescent Springs Police Chief Mike Ward says. “Now look at it. And the speed is definitely a factor.”

        Crescent Springs had 24 wrecks in 1995 compared to 35 in 1999 and 28 so far this year.

        The lack of a consistent police presence makes it difficult to slow drivers down. Most police departments along the route say federal money for overtime dried up in 1996, and they only have enough officers for local patrols.

        “It's a hazard, but I've also got to patrol the local streets, and that's a bigger priority for us,” Fort Wright Police Chief Dan Kreinest says.

        The Kentucky State Police rarely has been a presence along the highway. That's because the post in Dry Ridge can assign only one officer to the interstates throughout Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties, post Commander Al Rich says.

        That leaves Covington and Kenton County as the only departments that regularly patrol the highway.

        Barry Burke, who commutes daily from his Delhi Township home to the Buttermilk exit in Fort Mitchell, says he sees more speeders than ever.

        “I generally move with traffic, but lately, that's gotten to be 65 mph and even 70 mph some days,” Mr. Burke says. “I try to get over for people speeding up behind me, but lately, that's been happening so much, it's been hard.”

No elbow room
        Also of concern is the increased use of the highway — fueled by explosions in the region's population and commercial truck traffic.

        A ban on tractor-trailers on I-71/75 north of I-275 in Kentucky was lifted in 1995, and trucks now account for almost 20 percent of traffic on the interstate.

        Meanwhile, Boone County consistently ranked among the fastest-growing counties in Kentucky throughout the 1990s, creating more traffic than even the new highway can handle.

        “Now we're getting a lot of rear-enders because people drive too fast over the hills and then come up on stopped traffic,” Officer Russell says. Of the 381 accidents on I-71/75 in Covington this year, 195 took place between the heavy travel times of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

        Only one city, Fort Mitchell, has seen a decrease in accidents, down to 82 this year, compared to 224 last year.

        Police Chief Steve Hensley says the redesigned road has been a factor, but not as much as congestion.

        “Because of the backups, people are driving slower, therefore less accidents,” Chief Hensley says. “And we've got a lot more people taking alternate routes ... to the bridge.”

        Mr. Meyers, the Kentucky highway engineer, says there are few ways to expand capacity. Adding additional lanes is impractical and expensive. That leaves restricting the outside lane to high-occupancy traffic as the most viable option to congestion. Another possibility is devoting a lane to truck traffic.

        Both ideas are being considered as the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments studies the I-75 corridor through Greater Cincinnati.

        “There's not much we can do about rush hour, but the majority of these other problems are caused by motorists using the road improperly,” Mr. Meyers says. “If we take two drivers out of their cars and consolidate them into one, that could help.”

        Mr. Kriege takes a different approach to avoiding speeders and traffic jams: He rises at 5 a.m. to make his 25-mile commute.

        “It's for my mental health,” Mr. Kriege says. “That way, it's 20 minutes to my garage (at work). Between the speeders and the traffic jams, that's the only way I can stay sane.”

- Year after work, road still dangerous
Speeders on I-71/75 are easy pickings

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