City presents final two 'traffic calming' options for busy Liberty Street

CINCINNATI -- While a plan has not yet been selected, Over-the-Rhine residents have a better sense for what it would look like -- and now what it would cost -- to redesign the Liberty Street corridor.

In what was the fourth in a series of open houses convened at OTR's Woodward Theater to discuss redesign options for the busy, seven-lane thoroughfare, transportation architect Matthew Andrews, who has headed up the project from its start, said the two final options left before planners would cost about $1.25 million -- a modest amount as far as such projects go.

At the heart of the plan is making the street safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

The two remaining options -- a five-lane and a six-lane configuration -- came from an original crop of nine different options, running the gamut from the six-lane option, which includes full-time parking, to a three-lane configuration that included bike lanes and a single lane of auto traffic in each direction.

READ MORE: Bike-friendly option for Liberty St. might not be feasible

Some bad news for cyclists came out of Tuesday's meeting: Neither remaining option includes bicycle infrastructure. That's because, Andrews said, the traffic volume -- an estimated 16,000 to 18,000 vehicles per day -- is too heavy during rush hour to allow for anything less than five traffic lanes (a previous option had included three lanes of traffic, two lanes of parking and two bike lanes).

"We could not see reducing Liberty to less than five lanes during rush hour traffic," he said, maintaining that two lanes of traffic in each direction is critical to avoiding congestion during rush hour.

What designers are left with, as a result, Andrews said, are two options that differ in the amount of parking available and, also critical to the plan's goals, opening up new, developable land along Liberty Street's south side.

Let's start with everyone's favorite headache: parking.

The five-lane option would include a center turn lane -- an element Andrews said is crucial for avoiding collisions and congestion alike -- one traffic lane in each direction, except during peak traffic times, when the outside parking lanes would be converted to travel lanes:

In this five-lane configuration, the outside parking lanes would be converted to traffic lanes during rush hour. (Provided)

The other option, a six-lane configuration, would maintain two lanes of through traffic in one direction at all times; on the other side, there would be a part-time parking lane and another full-time through lane. This option also would include a full-time parking lane on either the north or south side of the road, as well as a center turn lane.

In this six-lane configuration, one of the outside parking lanes would be converted to a thru traffic lane during rush hour. (Provided)

The renderings demonstrate that each plan offers fairly comparable reductions in the distance pedestrians would have to cross: 50 feet with the five-lane, 52 feet with the six-lane. In the absence of fewer traffic lanes, compare this to the 70-foot length of Liberty Street's crosswalks currently, and the impact on pedestrian safety while crossing remains reachable.

But Andrews said another critical element to calming traffic along the busy corridor is making it appear narrower.

"Every time something gets narrower, you have a natural traffic-calming effect," he said, which he said would provide a safer environment for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike.

When it comes to this narrowing effect, city traffic engineer Bryan Williams sees the lane configurations as comparable: "My opinion is they're roughly the same," he said Tuesday.

But another element of this narrowing effect could be more visual, particularly when it comes to how closely the buildings come up against the curb.

Currently, city planners half-jokingly refer to the corridor as "the canyon," due to a large number of undeveloped parcels along the street's south side.

The orange represents the parcels of currently undeveloped land along Liberty Street's south side. (Provided)

In this regard, each plan is not created equal, due to the amount of developable land each makes available: While the five-lane option would create 20 feet of new parcel space along Liberty's south side, the six-lane plan would only free up between 10 and 12 feet of new space.

IN DEPTH: Can northern OTR thrive without fixing Liberty St.?

For Philip Denning, community development and planning officer for the city, this is a crucial element to the project. While he could not give specific numbers Tuesday as far as the difference between the two plans in developable square feet, he said, "The number is larger if there's 20 feet than if there's 12 feet."

Such development would take the street-narrowing efforts beyond the realm of safety and into that of revitalizing Over-the-Rhine's northern half, also known as the Brewery District. It's an effort initially spearheaded in 2011, when the district set out to revise its master plan, to create more connectivity between the neighborhood's burgeoning south-of-Liberty streets and the still mostly stagnant streets to the north. 

The initial 60 or so recommendations submitted by residents at Tuesday's open house showed overwhelming favor for the five-lane option, although recommendations can still be submitted online through Sept. 23, before the Over-the-Rhine Community Council meets to decide which plan to request from the city.

WCPO's Joe Rosemeyer contributed to this report.

Follow WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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