Wednesday, October 31, 2001

State officials lukewarm to plan for interchange

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MIDDLETOWN — Ohio's transportation chief led a high-level delegation Tuesday to Middletown, where the head of the Middletown Regional Hospital and other local officials championed a proposed Interstate 75 interchange.

        The state officials left assurances that studies of the proposed interchange at Greentree Road, where the hospital wants to move, will be accelerated. But that was all they were willing to commit to, rejecting the hospital's request to grant preliminary approval for state funding for the controversial project.

        “I'd be very reluctant at this point to give it a guarantee of funding,” said Gordon Proctor, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation and chairman of the department's project review board, called the Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC).

        Mr. Proctor and the other four TRAC members at the special meeting at the Manchester Inn said even if federal law allowed them to circumvent planning and environmental studies, they wouldn't do it.

        “You're asking us to make a decision without the proper information,” TRAC member Jerry Hruby told Douglas McNeill, the hospital's president and chief executive. “That would be like asking a surgeon to operate on a patient without having all the medical tests done.”

        After the meeting, Mr. McNeill called TRAC's promise to accelerate the studies “a positive step.” But he said he doesn't know if that would enable the hospital to open at its new site at Greentree and Union roads by 2006.

        He said the hospital's survival is at stake. Without moving where it can expand and have good interstate highway access, he said, the hospital eventually will be forced to close.

        “We'll be running out of space by 2004,” Mr. McNeill said.

        The hospital's proposed site is in Turtlecreek Township in Warren County. The proposal calls for Middletown to annex the site of the hospital's proposed $115 million health and technology complex.

        At Tuesday's meeting, which about 200 people attended, Turtlecreek Township and Warren County officials spoke against the interchange and the hospital's move to the Turtlecreek site. They said residents want to preserve the area's rural atmosphere.

        Ohio Sen. Scott Nein, R-Middletown, Ohio Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, and Middletown City Manager Ronald Olson spoke strongly in favor of the project.

        Mike Juengling, Butler County development director, said Butler supports the hospital's need to expand, but considers the Ohio 63 extension and the completion of the I-75 interchange at the Michael A. Fox Highway its top two priorities.

        “If this doesn't work out,” Mr. Hruby told Mr. McNeill, “I would advise you to have a Plan B ready.”


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