Thursday, January 16, 2003

Light rail, road expansion called best I-75 relief

Estimate to fix congestion: $1.8B

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

An expensive combination of light rail and highway expansion is the best way to reduce congestion on already crowded Interstate 75, the committee that will help determine the future of the freeway was told Wednesday.

But in addition to hearing that the final price tag for both items would be about $1.8 billion, the I-75 corridor study oversight committee also was told that in 30 years, traffic on a wider I-75 would still be 17 percent over capacity even with the two-pronged solution.

That capacity was estimated to be about 8,000 vehicles an hour at any given point on a four-lane I-75 during rush hour, or about 192,000 vehicles daily.

"We're not talking about reducing traffic here; we're just talking about the best way to cut the rate of growth," said Diana Martin, planning administrator for the Ohio Department of Transportation's District 8 and a member of the committee.

The committee also heard predictions on what the highway improvements would do alone; what a light rail line and modest bus improvements would do; and what the two combined would do. Widening and realigning the highway from the Ohio River to I-275 alone would cost $485 million, and even with the new capacity, the traffic would be 20 percent higher than that.

Officials preparing the study say that adding a lane would probably reduce congestion, but they have not been asked to look at that. The costs of such a project would be exorbitant because of land acquisition issues.

A 21-mile light rail line from West Chester to downtown Cincinnati would cost $985 million; and even with the predicted reduction in cars on the road that could come along with that project, traffic on a three-lane I-75 would still be 26 percent over capacity if transit were the only option pursued.

Yet the committee was told that if nothing were done other than the projects that have already been approved, traffic on I-75 in 30 years would be 28 percent over capacity. It is now about 10 percent over peak capacity, considered to be about 144,000 vehicles a day on the three-lane sections of the highway.

Staff from Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm that has contracted to do the study for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, gave the presentation, basing the numbers on computer modeling.

The I-75 committee could vote on what to put into OKI's 30-year master plan by next month. OKI, the region's main transportation planning agency, would have final approval over what would go into the plan. Inclusion into the plan is necessary for any highway or transportation project to receive federal funding.

The presentation came just over two months after Hamilton County voters overwhelmingly voted no on a half-cent sales tax increase that would have helped pay for a $2.6 billion county-wide light rail system.

Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, a co-chairman of the committee that campaigned against Issue 7 and a member of the I-75 committee, said that the new study raises questions about whether light rail is worth the money.

"If we go from 28 percent over to 17 percent over capacity, that means even with both that we're still over," Mr. Dowlin said. "Is that significant enough to sink billions of dollars into a system with such results? I don't know the answer, but judging from the results of the Issue 7 vote, the public says it is not worth it."

But John Schneider, a light rail advocate and I-75 committee member, said the study assumes only two-car trains. He said that while highway capacity is fixed and can be filled quickly, simply running more trains could expand transit.

"And you simply cannot ignore that there would be more and more people giving up their cars," said Mr. Schneider, a downtown-based developer who chaired the pro-light rail campaign last fall.


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