By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
To avoid gridlock in 30 years, Interstate 75 needs to be widened to six lanes in each direction from the Ohio River all the way through Butler County.
Fresh data about future traffic demand - and the potential cost of expansion - are expected to be released today to a committee working on how to fix the crowded highway.
While serving as a vital national commerce link, I-75 in Greater Cincinnati also has Ohio's second-worst expressway accident rate.
Expanding I-75 to six lanes would be the biggest expressway renovation project in the region's history. As a result, the cost and neighborhood impacts are likely to be huge.
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Massive amounts of land would need to be acquired and cleared - not just to add the lanes, but to rebuild interchanges. Communities such as Lockland, the West End and even downtown Cincinnati could be drastically affected.
The committee is expected to make its recommendations this fall to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), the region's planning agency. OKI would then consider which projects to include in its long-range plan - a required step for obtaining federal funding.
Officials would not discuss price estimates before today's meeting.
But a previous study of making I-75 just four lanes in each direction - a project that would require minimal land purchases - came with an estimated price tag exceeding $800 million.
Yet planners concluded that a four-lane widening would make rush hour traffic 30 years in the future worse than it is now.
That led many on the committee to ask just how much extra highway space it would take to keep I-75 flowing.
So this summer, the Ohio Department of Transportation provided $365,000 to answer that question for both Greater Cincinnati and the Dayton area.
"The committee wanted to know just what would fix the problem," said OKI corridor study manager Judi Craig. "Now we will know and we'll have to take it from there."
Most stretches of I-75 in Greater Cincinnati have three lanes each way; some have four. Now, Craig says the answer is six lanes in each direction in most places, although some areas would need only five.
"Originally, there was some recognition that going beyond four lanes would have some significant impacts ... but this will really open the debate over whether we can afford the costs and can we afford the impacts," said Diana Martin, planning administrator for ODOT's regional office.
Officials originally said that the four-lane option would require about 23 acres of land to be acquired and cleared.
That would not be the case if I-75 was widened further, because nearly all the interchanges and bridges would need to be rebuilt.
"If I had thought it were feasible to go beyond four lanes at the start of the study, I would have demanded that we look beyond four lanes from the start," Martin said, adding that ODOT was originally satisfied with the four-lane option.
"We need to look beyond just the financial path. We need to look at the social and environmental impacts."
In addition to the six-lane option, OKI and its consultants will present a compromise proposal that is more than four lanes but something less than the six-lane concept.
It's an alternative Martin calls the "share the pain option" that would widen the highway in key areas but not to the point where it would flow freely during rush hour.
And in what is thought to be a first nationally for studies of its kind, consultants are expected to present a model showing how much mass transit, including light rail, would need to be added to the corridor to reduce the need for building new highway space.
"Can you believe that we are the first community to ask that question?" said Martin. "But this will give us a true comparison point."
When OKI decides on whatever the committee recommends, it will also have to consider whether there will be funds available to pay for it.
That could be a tough decision.
The amount of available federal highway funds could be cut in the next year because of budget battles in Washington.
And Hamilton County voters overwhelmingly defeated a sales tax increase last fall that would have helped pay for a proposed regional light rail system.
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