Monday, January 28, 2002

Experts: I-75 becoming a dangerously clogged artery

Truck-only lane among remedies under consideration

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As area transportation officials begin wrestling with how to improve congestion along Interstate 75, one huge problem looms: How should they handle the increased number of big trucks using the highway in the area?

        One idea among 32 proposals in the initial phase of a study is a truck-only lane through part of the area or all of the 60-mile stretch of the interstate from Warren County to southern Kenton County.

Rush-hour comparison:
1995 vs. 2030
        Many local drivers, who this month suffered hours of delays caused by truck wrecks on I-71 and I-75, would welcome such a restriction.

        “Just the other day, I wound up in the emergency lane because one of the trucks just decided to come over,” said Florence resident Missy Long, 39, who commutes up the cut in the hill along I-71/75 from her Covington bank teller job. “This would be a better idea, just to get them out of the way.”

  Interstate 75 at a glance:
  • 1956: The year I-75 opened in the Tristate, making it the oldest interstate in the region.
  • 60: Number of miles from Warren/Montgomery County border to split with I-71 in Kenton County.
  • 100,000: Total vehicles per day to use I-75 in Ohio between I-275 and the Brent Spence Bridge.
  • 20,000: Approximate number of trucks to use I-75 in Ohio between I-275 and the Brent Spence Bridge. Overall, I-75 is the busiest truck route in North America.
  Source: Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments

        But some trucking industry officials say the concept would make the highways even less safe, more congested and more expensive.

        Officials will be discussing this and the other proposals in a series of open houses beginning Tuesday downtown. Six more are planned throughout the area. (Meeting schedule)

        The sessions are some of the first steps for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Government's (OKI) $6 million study of what should be done with I-75 over the next 30 years.

        OKI oversees transportation planning for the area and is conducting the study with the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission, which is studying I-75 through Dayton.

        Some of the other suggestions for the interstate:

        • Relocating all exit ramps to the right.

        • Creating new exits while closing others.

        • Expanding the highway to four lanes.

        • Create a lane for vehicles with two or more passengers.

        But any discussion of I-75 must include the truck issue, experts say. The interstate, which stretches from the Canadian border to southern Florida, is the most heavily traveled truck route in North America, and is the conduit for an estimated $24.5 billion in commodities annually.

        OKI manager of corridor studies Judi Craig said that the organization has yet to endorse any proposal, including a truck lane.

        “Ultimately, we will be making some decisions, but we need a lot more data,” Ms. Craig said, pointing out that each community will be involved in the decision. “But here, we've got to strike the balance between the local community that sees the interstate as a local road and the federal interests of keeping it flowing as an artery for the entire country.”

        One fact riding against a truck lane is that 90 percent of all trucks using I-75 in the Tristate make at least one stop. If the truck lane were off to the left and the exits were all on the right, that would create even more weaving and merging.

        “You can't barrier off the trucks, because they have so many deliveries in the metro area,” said Erin Peterson, a project engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering firm hired as a consultant by OKI for the I-75 study. “It sounds like a good idea in theory, but only if you had trucks just driving through Cincinnati. And the more development you have, the more deliveries you need.”

        Still, one trucking company executive said such a proposal could work. Steve Wallace, vice president for safety for Wilmington-based R&L Carriers, Inc., points out that a similar system is effective in the Detroit area.

        “As long as there is a lane allowed for mixed use, so passing can occur, and it is uniformly enforced between trucks and cars, it can work,” said Mr. Wallace, whose drivers use I-75 in this area at least 400 times daily.

        But another trucking official said such an idea would be unsafe and would slow down truckers who might be on deadline.

        Steve Riha, Cincinnati terminal manager for ABF Freight System, pointed to the Atlanta system, which forbids trucks without local permits from using the interstates inside the bypass loop. And on that loop, trucks are limited to the two right lanes, which mixes them in with local traffic trying to merge on and off the highway.

        “If you limit the trucks to one lane, that would lead to a crammed lane between 8 p.m. and midnight and other wide open lanes,” said Mr. Riha, whose facility sends about 100 trucks a day onto I-75. “We need various speeds to be safe, otherwise whoever leads the pack sets the pace. And what happens if someone can or is only willing to go 45 mph?”

        Then there's the cost. Ms. Peterson said the current structure of the highway wouldn't support a limited-use lane, meaning more lanes would need to be added.

        Ms. Craig wouldn't speculate on a potential cost, but it took 10 years and $106 million to widen 6.5 miles in Northern Kentucky known as “the cut in the hill” and the “S-curve.”

        That doesn't deter drivers such as Ms. Long from thinking such restrictions are a good idea.

        “Most of my experience with truck drivers is that they think they're driving cars and are all over the place,” Ms. Long said. “We need to weed out the traffic as much as possible.”

I-75 meeting schedule

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