By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Widening Interstate 75 to six lanes in each direction for most of the stretch from the Ohio River north through Warren County would cost $1.56 billion, require 160 acres to be taken and 103 structures to be destroyed.
Almost $1 billion of that cost would come in Hamilton County alone, according to figures released Monday to the committee overseeing a study on what to do about the crowded and hazardous freeway in Greater Cincinnati.
In addition to surprising many on the committee, the new data potentially re-ignite the debate about the best solution for fixing I-75 - building more lanes, a light rail system or a combination of both.
"To be honest, to me, this information narrows the fact that the optimal solution is a combination rather than a debate between each," said Diana Martin, planning manager for the region's office of the Ohio Department of Transportation. ODOT paid for the additional study time to figure out how much highway space it would take to eliminate rush-hour congestion.
Previously, the study had shown that rush-hour traffic would actually be worse 30 years from now if the interstate were widened to four lanes in each direction from the river through Warren County.
It would take six lanes each way in most places, with five lanes in some areas, to give enough room to forestall major tie-ups at rush hour in 30 years, committee members were told Monday.
Such a project would easily be the most expensive and expansive highway renovation in the region's history. Highway officials have long argued that something must be done to modernize what ODOT says is the second-most accident-prone stretch of interstate in Ohio, behind Interstate 70/71 in downtown Columbus.
The cost figures do not include the $482 million that ODOT is already planning for maintenance. The estimates also do not include any expansion of the highway through Northern Kentucky or any costs associated with the renovation or replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, which is estimated to cost at least $500 million.
Light rail also is being studied as an option for I-75, at a cost of just over $1 billion for the corridor including operations and maintenance. But while the study has shown that a new line would make a bigger difference in traffic congestion than just building highways, there still would be major gridlock at rush hour with light rail alone.
A separate economic cost-benefit analysis presented Monday showed that a combination of light rail and five lanes in each direction on I-75, which could cost more than a combined $2 billion, would have a net economic benefit of $843 million, by far the most of any alternative.
In November, however, Hamilton County voters rejected a half-cent sales tax increase that would have paid the local portion of a proposed $2.6 billion light rail system for the entire county.
"Hamilton County voters voted down a tax mechanism that covered the local share, and I still think there is tremendous sentiment for rail as an alternative," OKI corridor studies manager Judi Craig said.
The committee is now set to vote on final recommendations late this month. Those recommendations would then be forwarded on to the full board of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (OKI) Regional Council of Governments.
OKI, the region's planning organization, then has the final vote on what include to in the long-range plan. Any project must be included in that plan to receive federal funding. When voting, OKI is supposed to consider whether a project is economically feasible.
"I wish we had these cost figures when we were in the campaign," said John Schneider, a member of the I-75 committee who served as chairman of last fall's pro-light-rail effort.
"People talked about alternatives that were better, cheaper and faster than light rail," he said. "But now we see that these alternatives are actually more expensive, take longer and are not sustainable."
But without the local support for light rail, and a scarcity of highway funds, OKI might be faced with a tough decision.
The agency expects the region to receive $8 billion in transportation funding for the entire area in the next 30 years. Major fixes are still needed on the east side of the region, while I-71 is becoming increasingly congested despite recent widening. Finally, there is the Brent Spence replacement project, which could easily exceed its initial $500 million estimate.
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