By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Widening Interstate 75 to four lanes in each direction from the Ohio River north to the Interstate 275 bypass would cost nearly a half billion dollars, area transportation officials were told Wednesday.
It was the first time a dollar figure has officially been affixed to the proposed project.
Engineers hired by the North-South Initiative, a committee formed by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, also said that widening the interstate north of I-275 through Butler and Warren counties would cost another $330 million. They added that such lane expansions wouldn't do much to reduce congestion 30 years from now.
"We already knew there was a lot of traffic here, and that traffic was bad, but we were surprised just how bad it is and how bad it will get," Erin Peterson, an engineer with the firm that prepared the study, told the committee.
"We studied four lanes, but four lanes may not be enough to handle the traffic in this area," he said "Under this proposal ... we wouldn't be much better off than if we did nothing."
The initiative was created in 2000 to study what to do about I-75, already well over capacity with about 120,000 vehicles a day on average through the region, including 20,000 trucks. Experts have said that the highway could see as many as 170,000 vehicles a day on average by 2030, with some areas seeing more than 200,000 daily, leading the committee to ask for the study as it considers its options.
The committee took no action on the study Wednesday, because it has yet to hear all scenarios, including mass transit or a combination of mass transit and highway improvements.
The congestion and cost estimates, prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff of Ohio, found that widening and renovating I-75 inside I-275 would cost $485 million, including rebuilding I-75 south of I-74 to the river (already four lanes), and renovating the I-74/I-75 interchange as well as several exits along the highway; and modifying other bridges.
Some short sections of I-75 north of I-74 are already four lanes wide, but the proposal would make that width consistent, and the report said widening I-75 to four lanes would need the acquisition of only 4 acres.
Still, the study showed that while adding lanes would lessen congestion in the suburban counties, it would then funnel more traffic inside the loop, making congestion even worse there.
The study did not consider the costs of either replacing or renovating the Brent Spence Bridge, nor what the cost would be to add a fifth lane of interstate through Greater Cincinnati, which would require the acquisition of a large amount of already developed real estate.
Diana Martin, planning administrator for the Ohio Department of Transportation's District 8, would say only that the cost of more lanes on I-75 would be "exorbitant," and that paying for a consistent four-lane interstate through the area would also be difficult.
"But over the next 30 years, we really don't have a choice," said Ms. Martin, who said during the meeting that ODOT was already committed to making at least $300 million in improvements and renovations to I-75 inside the loop over the next 15 years.
The figures were released less than three weeks before Hamilton County voters will decide on a half-cent sales tax increase for transit. If passed, Issue 7 would raise local funding for a proposed $2.6 billion, 60-mile light-rail system, as well as major expansions to the bus service. The plan includes a proposed line along I-75, which would cost approximately $530 million, from Evanston, where it would meet another light-rail line south along I-71, to the Tricounty area.
Developer John Schneider, chairman of the committee campaigning in favor of the light-rail proposal as well as a North-South Initiative member, said that the study shows that adding more highway lanes is not the answer to growing congestion and pollution problems.
"This clearly shows that it will get used up and we'll be back where we start from," said Mr. Schneider. "With light rail, we can add 50 percent more capacity by just adding another half a train without having to widen anything."
The leader of the main group opposed to the light-rail proposal said the new cost estimates for I-75 work out to about $20.4 million per mile, about half of what he says light rail would cost per mile.
"And we also ought to be looking at creating another highway altogether to allow through traffic to bypass Cincinnati instead of this light-rail idea," said Stephan Louis, chairman of the Alternatives to Light Rail Transit group.
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