LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE - Sunday, March 2, 2003

Main Street of the Tristate:
overloaded, outmoded, unsafe

As a critical artery clogs, driver's pressure rises

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Approaching I-275, Debbie Soldano slows to 32 mph. It's a bad sign: "If it is already backed up here north of 275, you prepare yourself."

(Gary Landers photo)
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It's 7:11 a.m., still dark. As Debbie Soldano eases her two-seat convertible over the first hill outside her home, the red-orange glow of a hundred brake lights brightens her face.

But not her mood.

"I've got just three words for this," she hisses, gripping the steering wheel tight. "High blood pressure."

Soldano soon will become just one driver among thousands doing the daily slog from the suburbs to the city down Interstate 75.

Lost time. Frayed nerves. Debbie Soldano suffers it all: The stop-and-go tango that's the daily dance. The standstill when a truck overturns or snow starts to fall.

Soldano is an expert on I-75. She knows the most congested road in the region is only getting worse. Built in the 1960s using 1950s designs and 1940s highway standards, it's overloaded and out-of-date. Engineers are studying roadway improvements, but if the truth be known, Soldano is sure she won't see them in her lifetime.

Here on this day, she's just another weary road warrior. Her fingers rap a staccato on the stick shift of her Honda, as the bluesy voice of Susan Tedeschi blares at high volume from a CD. This one-windshield view shows just how nerve-wracking I-75 can be.

"It's like this huge waste of time," says Soldano, 43. "I'm always thinking of what else I could, no, should be doing."

During the day, she supervises nurses at University Hospital's cancer surgery unit. In the early morning and late at night, she's a single working mom, cooking meals, washing clothes, finishing work brought home. She'd move closer to the hospital, but she wants her daughter to finish her senior year at nearby Lakota West.

Soldano's daily 17-mile drive takes anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. She has things timed pretty well on most days, but if the unexpected happens, there's no telling how long the trip will take.

She used to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get to her old job by 7 a.m.

Now, she says, "I still get up at 5:30, but I don't get there until 8."

A rising, spreading load

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, more than 78,000 cars and trucks used the highway at the Hamilton-Butler county line daily in 1994. In just six years, that number had skyrocketed 62 percent to more than 126,000 vehicles.

Congestion threatens a region's productivity. It tangles up commercial trucking lanes and leads to more accidents.

It wears people down.

John Phillips has been watching congestion build every morning from his helicopter, where he reports on traffic for five local radio stations.

"You really see it in the way it has spread out up and down the interstate. It used to be that you wouldn't have to go much farther north than I-275 or down to 275 in Kentucky. Now, I'll fly all the way to the Monroe exit and have even gone all the way up to Dayton to check something out because of the overall ripple effect."

Why have things gotten so bad?

• Massive increases in truck traffic. The daily truck count increased more than 65 percent on I-75 in Evendale alone between 1994 and 2002.

• The population boom in northern suburban counties. Soldano's Union Centre Boulevard exit didn't even exist in 1994, but that point on I-75 handled nearly 119,000 vehicles a day in 2000

• Not enough capacity. No space has been added to I-75 in Ohio inside the I-275 loop since the northern section of the freeway was completed in 1966.

7:13 a.m., 0 mph, 16 miles to go

Soldano isn't even on I-75 yet this day: She's about a football field away from the on-ramp, waiting to turn left from Muhlhauser Road onto Union Centre Boulevard.

Gridlock often besets the intersection. And the line snaking to I-75 grows longer and longer as drivers wait to merge at the bottom of the ramp.

"You can just sit here for 10 minutes without anywhere to go," Soldano says.

She recently posted a description of herself to an online dating service. Her biggest pet peeve: "People who don't know how to merge."

As she finally joins the moving parking lot on I-75, a new tension fills the car's cramped interior.

"It's here that you judge, `Is this going to be a good day, or a bad day?' " Soldano says.

She's nearly shouting over the music, pumped up on account of the wind screaming in through the convertible top that has needed a repair for about a month now.

"Of course that is all relative, because you are still going to hit your delays. But if there is snow, or if the signs say there is a wreck, or if it is already backed up here north of 275, you prepare yourself."

Modern Mississippi

To understand the traffic on I-75 is to understand the road itself. It's one of the most crucial parts of the nation's interstate system, rivaling the East Coast's I-95 for the transport of goods and people.

It's one of the busiest truck routes in America, making it a modern-day Mississippi River. At the same time, it increasingly serves as a local road for many communities, turning it into the Midwest's Main Street.

The highway stretches all the way from the Canadian border at Sault St. Marie to the outskirts of Miami, passing through population centers as diverse as Detroit, Atlanta and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

To be sure, larger cities deal with more delays and congestion than Cincinnati.

But for area drivers, perception is reality. And the social, economic and even personal impact of increased traffic on I-75 here cannot be discounted.

"We have a doctor who just moved recently from New York, and even he is complaining about the traffic, so it must be bad," Soldano says.

Experts say the interstate's design flaws exacerbate drivers' natural tendencies.

"When volumes exceed capacity at a rate that they are in this area, psychological effects take hold," says Erin Peterson, a senior engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering firm overseeing a study of I-75. "People are uncomfortable traveling that close together. It's nervous driving behavior. When it becomes harder to merge and weave, people drive slower."

7:20 a.m., 32 mph, 14 miles to go

Soldano's speed quickly drops. 32 mph. 25. 17.

She hits her first routine delay point, the curve in Evendale between Princeton High School and St. Rita School for the Deaf on the right and the GE Aircraft Engines complex on the left.

She immediately bears to the right, sneaking in behind an Oldsmobile that's as caked with salt as every other car.

"I know that this doesn't make sense, but I always stick to the slow lanes," Soldano says. "It always moves faster."

This morning, she slows but never stops, unlike the cars on her left.

"The fast lane is the worst lane to be in," she says. In the slow lane, "you can be the first to spot things coming up, and you can always merge."

Just then, Soldano swerves into the middle lane to get around a particularly slow-moving truck. She settles back to the right within 20 seconds.

She glances at the dashboard clock. A job candidate will walk into her office shortly after 8 a.m. for an interview. If this doesn't improve soon, she won't make it.

Farther south, Soldano cruises by the Lincoln Heights/Neumann Way exit, where an unusual off-ramp will eventually reconnect with the interstate.

"It's like another highway lane if you need it," Soldano says. "I don't do it all the time. It's nice to know that it's there, though."

Sticking to the slow lane. Anticipating the options. Keeping a minute-to-minute checklist of where she is and where she needs to be.

"I never really thought that I did have a strategy to driving, but I guess I've been doing this so long, it has become second-nature," Soldano says.

"It's kind of like playing chess."

Rush `hour' expands

These chess matches are lasting longer than ever, according to ARTIMIS, the region's traffic management agency.

ARTIMIS (short for Advanced Regional Traffic Interactive Management and Information System) workers watch live camera feeds of the Tristate interstate system day in and day out. The morning and afternoon supervisors have more than 20,000 hours combined doing this work.

Not only have average delays increased, but the morning and afternoon rush hours have gotten longer. A typical rush "hour" today begins at 7 a.m. and ends after 9, compared to 7:30-8:45 a.m. a decade ago.

"I can say that I've seen delay times get at least five to six minutes longer since April," ARTIMIS morning supervisor David Leonardsays.

With little traffic, it takes about 24 minutes to travel the 22 miles from the Michael A. Fox Regional Highway to the Ohio River. During a normal morning rush, that time is pushed up to 39 minutes. It took about 30 minutes two years ago.

On a bad day, when a truck overturns or there is severe weather?

"Oh, boy," Leonard says. "You are looking at another 45 minutes on top of the normal drive time."

ARTIMIS afternoon supervisor Elaine Baker says northbound traffic starts building at 3 p.m., and regular delays start by 4.

They invariably hit at the same points: Cincinnati-Dayton Road; the curve in Evendale; Glendale-Milford Road; the Lockland trench; the Norwood lateral; Paddock Road; and the area that includes the merge with I-74 and the Hopple Street exit.

"If there is an accident at Paddock at the height of rush hour, it doesn't take long for those delay areas to merge into one," Leonard says. "Then it's like one big block of traffic. It used to be rare that that would happen. Now, it occurs pretty regularly."

7:25 a.m., 5 mph, 12 miles to go

The congestion finally catches completely up with Soldano's little car at one of those chokepoints - the approach to the I-75 split at Lockland.

She looks around for an exit. But none of the vehicles around her moves either, so she stays put in the slow lane.

"It's pretty bad when you're driving a stick shift and you don't get out of second gear," Soldano says.

She spots an opening in the middle lane.

"You can always find room in front of a truck," she says. "Trucks don't really scare me. We all share the road, and most truck drivers are pretty nice."

Soldano edges ahead of a full-sized semi hauling a 53-foot-long trailer. A few hundred feet later, she dips back into the slow lane. For her, the maneuver may have saved another few precious seconds.

Trucks, trucks, trucks

Growing truck traffic is one factor that everyone cites for worsening congestion.

Miles traveled by U.S. commercial trucks increased 229 percent between 1970 and 1999, federal statistics show. During the same time, miles traveled by passenger cars only grew 71 percent, and interstate capacity grew less than 10 percent.

Today, each semi-truck takes up the same room on the highway as eight cars.

"There seems to be an almost rhythmic expansion in trucks," traffic reporter Phillips says. "They are everywhere all the time now. It used to be that maybe one out of every 15 vehicles was a truck. Now, I'd say that is about one in seven."

The Ohio Department of Transportation predicts that commercial truck traffic will increase 53 percent on the state's highways by 2020. Those numbers could be higher in Greater Cincinnati, which now sees as many as 20,000 trucks a day on each of its interstates. Those numbers could rise by 12,000 a day in the next 17 years.

7:30 a.m., 35 mph, 2 miles to go

For one of the few times on this trip, Soldano veers to the far left.

"Just before Paddock," she says, "is the only time to get into the fast lane. And I usually don't think about it, so I guess I must be doing it subconsciously."

One minute later, traffic grinds to a complete halt again. As day slowly breaks, Soldano can see pale, stretched faces just like hers in cars next door. Like her, these drivers are alone in their cars.

"It's amazing to me how many people drive by themselves," she says. "I guess I'm bad, too. But I have carpooled with other docs who live by me."

As the pace picks up to a slow crawl, Soldano passes a grayish Buick in the breakdown lane, its lights flashing.

It's the fifth abandoned or broken-down car she's passed this morning.

"Here we go," Debbie says under her breath, still rapping on the stick shift.

Traffic slows, seemingly giving the wounded vehicle a wide berth. Then inexplicably, speeds pick up again once the car is in the rear-view mirror.

"Next to merging," Soldano says, looking again at the clock, "rubbernecking is my second-biggest issue with traffic. Now why are we slowing down? What is there to see?"

The episode reminds Soldano of her own experience with highway gawkers in January. A chain-reaction collision claimed her rear bumper, and forced her and two other cars to the side of the road.

"So there I am, crying," she recalls, angry all over again, "and people are driving alongside, slowing down to see what's going on. And some people are flipping me off and cursing at me, and the wreck wasn't even my fault."

Rubbernecking delays

Disabled vehicles cause more delays than accidents or weather.

ARTIMIS says that capacity on a three-lane highway is cut in half when just one lane is blocked.

No one knows why the phenomenon exists, but it can turn a mild-mannered Cincinnatian into a New York City cab driver.

Transportation and law enforcement agencies have been working together to clear roadways as soon as possible after accidents. Investigations can wait; accident reports can be reconstructed later.

"It's something we've been stressing for the past 10 months or so," Cincinnati city traffic engineer Steve Baileysays. "I think we're making some progress."

Such delays are about to get worse. The state plans to add another lane to I-75 in each direction between Tylersville Road in West Chester and Kemper Road in Sharonville starting later this month.

To do that, the far right lanes will be closed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Construction will take most of the year.

7:34 a.m., 65 mph, 1 1/2 miles to go

Debbie guns her engine to get around another truck and make the dash for the Mitchell Avenue exit. She'll be one of 39,000 drivers to use the exit this day.

"It feels good to get off of there," she says, her crawl down the interstate done.

On Vine Street, her speed quickly drops to 19 mph, and potholes bounce the little car around. She eventually picks up speed, hitting 35 mph. She sees the hospital.

Then she stops.

A stale yellow light at Erkenbrecher Avenue snags Soldano in front of the Cincinnati Zoo. "Even though I'm off the expressway," she says, "I can take just as long to drive this street as I was on I-75."

A school bus crosses through an intersection, its white flashing light slicing through the gloomy morning. Soldano gives thanks that she is not behind it: "I'm late for work every time that happens."

She considers a second. "Thank goodness it's not Thursday," she mutters, "because Thursday is garbage day in this part of the city. Wait a minute. How did I know that? That's pretty sick that I would know that and I wouldn't even live here."

7:45 a.m., 5 mph, arrival

Soldano pulls into the entrance to her parking garage and pulls out her access card.

"They charge me 62 bucks a month to park," she says, rolling her eyes. "Like it's a privilege to drive this every day."

Her total drive time today is 34 minutes, "a VERY good day."

Soldano straightens her hair before walking into her office, where a picture of her daughter adorns her desk.

"The only reason I keep doing this is because of her," she says. "Once she graduates, I'm buying a house inside the city so I don't have to deal with this."

If she didn't have to fight the traffic, Soldano says she could spend more time with her daughter, savor another cup of coffee at home before the drive.

"There have been days when traffic has been particularly bad, that I've walked into my boss' office and said, `I quit,' and only been half joking," Soldano says.

"Those days are happening more and more."


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