Sunday, August 06, 2000

It's the Way of the future

New Fort Washington Way makes new riverfront possible

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] John Deatrick, city transportation director, led the project.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Two new sports stadiums may be sexier, and The Banks plan for riverfront parks, hotels and homes may be prettier.

        But without the three-year Fort Washington Way road project that's nearing completion along the Ohio River, none of it would have been possible.

        After two years of traffic jams and seemingly constant detours, most of the new Fort Washington Way is set to open on Aug. 14 and 18.

        Analysts say it will do more than ease traffic — it's the key that will help Cincinnati reclaim its legacy as one of America's great riverfront cities.

Getting Around: a map
Opening dates
Easier to drive
Safety: Issues remain
How it got it's name
Timeline of the renovation
Money: where it came from, where it went
        “I don't think the average person yet has a sense of how potentially important and transforming this can be,” says Dan Hurley, local historian and author of the book Cincinnati: The Queen City. “This could very well redefine our conception of what downtown will be.”

        Mr. Hurley and others say no current or future plans for the riverfront could have happened without a new Fort Washington Way, the short stretch of asphalt that connects just about all the area's major highways right in front of downtown.

        Not the two stadiums — the sleek new Paul Brown Stadium that opens this season or Great American Ball Park, the Reds' new home to be ready in 2003.

        Not The Banks, the dream project that could turn what had been a flood plain dotted by some produce stands into prime real estate and a 10-acre park.

        Not the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum planned in the space between the two stadiums, to be reached by foot from downtown or by buses parking at a new transit center.

        And certainly not the goal of turning Cincinnati's waterfront into another Back Bay of Boston, Inner Harbor of Baltimore or a copy of Chicago's Lakeshore Drive.

        “There were three main reasons for the project,” says John Deatrick, the city's transportation director, who has shepherded the project from its original $96 million proposal to its current $314 million vision.

        “The first was safety, and that was the primary concern. Then we wanted to recapture some of the property. And finally, reconnecting the riverfront with downtown is a big piece. That could mean a lot for not only Cincinnati, but the entire region.”

        Yet Fort Washington Way is the biggest road project in Greater Cincinnati since the original road transformed downtown nearly 40 years ago.

        Only about a mile long and a half-mile wide, the construction site is actually not that big.

        But the project has always been incredibly complicated — given the tight confines and the end goals of shrinking the existing highway and reclaiming 14 acres of real estate.

        More than 1.5 million hours of labor. More than 84 miles of steel. Almost 175,000 tons of concrete. All done in three years with traffic still flowing, when engineers say something of this magnitude normally takes 15 years.

        University of Cincinnati history professor Zane Miller ranks the project with the construction of the original Fort Washington Way in the late 1950s and the building of Union Terminal and accompanying railyard, which opened in 1933, as one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of the city.

        “We really haven't seen anything like this for 50 years,” Dr. Miller says. “Cincinnati used to be a real avant garde place where people dreamed big. This could be a sign that we're returning to that.”

        But while the new mainline highway that connects Interstates 71, 75 and 471 and U.S. 50 and the new jumble of ramps at either end get all the attention, the five new bridges connecting downtown to a new Second Street and beyond are the real key to the end goal of a reinvented city.

        “There has always been this gulf between the riverfront and downtown, and some days it seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon, although not as scenic,” says Cincinnati city manager John Shirey. “This is an ingenious compromise ... we can carry a huge volume of traffic while at the same time we're beautifying our downtown and reconnecting the riverfront.”

        Another key: the new $15.4 million floodwall that will protect it all.

        “We couldn't have done it without that,” says Mr. Deatrick. “The federal government wasn't going to leave its investment unprotected.”

        It was the great flood of 1937, after all, that made the city turn its back on the waterfront in the first place.

        “We're connecting what was once cut off,” says Dr. Miller. “It's all a race between cities to see which has the latest development, and lately it's been keeping downtown lively as both during the day and night. This will help us catch up in that race.”

        City planners have long had their eyes set on the riverfront.

        In fact, they wanted to reconnect downtown as early as 1947, when one of the city's first metropolitan master plans was compiled.

        But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said at the time that there wasn't enough economic value there to protect when putting together a feasibility study of floodwalls.

        That resulted in the first version of Fort Washington Way, long viewed as the dividing line between the waterfront and downtown.

        Even then, plans called for a trench that would have a “Golden Strip” of development on the south side and a cover that would house parking decks. But those plans were rejected as too cumbersome and expensive.

        This time around, however, the concept caught on in a big way.

        As more people realized what a reconnected downtown could mean to the city, the project took on new facets and added dollars faster than workers could erect orange barrels.

        A new transit center was tacked on for $45 million, which could make it a breeze to take a bus to a Reds or Bengals game or visit the Freedom Center. It also makes taking a train in from the suburbs possible.

        The sewer system was overhauled at a cost of $10.6 million to prevent overflow into the Ohio River. Officials already credit the new system with reducing health warnings this year.

        And $10 million worth of additional pilings were driven late in the project, creating the possibility of covering the highway and providing another opportunity for development.

        “We've always funded things before they were added ... and the system worked,” Mr. Deatrick says. “There was no way we could hide this stuff. And although there have been a few overruns, for the most part, each addition has added value.”

        Fueling the growth has been the involvement of just about every level of government in the Tristate — from the Federal Highway Administration to the state of Ohio to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to Hamilton County to the city itself, which is in charge of the program.

        Mr. Hurley says it wasn't any sense of cooperation between agencies that expanded the scope.

        Instead, each agency jumped on with an additional piece that happened to fit into the whole once the original project got off the ground, creating a blossoming synergy that led to the present project. Case in point: Kentucky spent $14.4 million of its federal highway funds to improve connections to Ohio's new highway and distributor streets.

        “A state spending its federal funds on a project in another state is almost unheard of,” says Mr. Hurley. “But they saw how they could get something out of this. It was all in their own self-interest, and for this one moment in time, all the self-interests all happened to mesh.”

        There have been glitches.

        One subcontractor, S.E. Johnson, claims the city owes $15 million for overruns it says were caused by the city delaying construction. The matter is unresolved.

        Another $1.5 million was added in the form of an exit ramp that was added late in the process and probably won't even open for another two to three years.

        One section of highway had to be rebuilt for nearly $1 million because concrete was set wrong, although the contractor's insurance picked up most of the tab and the design firm responsible for the error paid the deductible.

        Hamilton County commissioners had to “redo” their $2 million allocation for the additional pilings because the original vote was held in secret.

        And the $10.6 million spent on the sewer renovation was more than double the $4 million originally budgeted.

        It's unclear whether the problems were created by the fast-track nature of the project or were normal stumbles for a project this size.

        The city has avoided the kind of turmoil that has surrounded the construction of Paul Brown Stadium, which is coming in approximately $45 million over budget.

        “Clearly when a project triples in cost, there's something more going on than things being added,” says local attorney Tim Mara, an outspoken critic of the stadium who sued the county over the way it handled the pilings vote. “But people are more willing to put up with paying more for it because they're certainly going to use it more than the stadium.

        “The thing we've got to watch out for now is that we're nearing the end, and haste makes waste.”

        Mr. Deatrick vows nothing is being overlooked even as the pace increases even more in the coming weeks.

        “We've had the last three years to get our coordination right,” he says. “We're not going to blow it now that we're so close.”

        Mr. Deatrick says the new roadways will get an “A-minus” for handling traffic, and should still be getting grades of “C” or better all the way until 2020.

        But whether the new Fort Washington Way fulfills its role as conduit for a rebirth of the riverfront is still in question, partly because of the stadium projects it helped create.

        “If the political stink around Paul Brown Stadium and the potential for problems around the Reds park subsides, then we have a chance,” Dr. Miller says. “That could really kill any chance we have at the Banks or anything else they talk about.

        “But if we get past that, who knows. This alone could boost us up five notches in population rankings and economic development rankings. It's that big.”