COLUMN: It's time for the Tri-State to rethink road widening

Spend even a quarter-mile on Cincinnati's stretch of Interstate 75 and you'll catch a glimpse of a lingering trend in the Tri-State: making our roads wider.

The thing is, while these projects might solve some problems, they might just be creating others. But we keep spending dollars on these projects, hundreds of millions of dollars.

I should start by saying first: With every road widening project comes as much if not equal money going toward preserving or upgrading what is already there.

The Mill Creek Expressway expansion -- that's the decade-long, half-billion dollar reboot of I-75 from the Western Hills Viaduct to Paddock Road -- primarily addresses the fact that the flooring below the pavement hasn't been replaced or upgraded since the highway was built in the 1960s.

"About 75 percent of this project is preserving what we already have," said Brian Cunningham, a spokesperson with the Ohio Department of Transportation, an important fact to point out. Much of that money is going to maintenance and preservation of what we already have.

But it also means the freeway will be one lane wider in each direction, along with other upgrades to interchanges and ramps.

I-75 isn't alone in the Tri-State. A widening project is nearing completion on Fields Ertel Road at Interstate 71, with a $1.3 million price-tag. Ohio 4 is also wider, after a year of construction to the tune of a half-million dollars.

The recently revamped Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at I-71 is nine lanes wide in some spots. This is primarily to increase access for emergency vehicles to the area's multiple hospitals, Cunningham said. But it's also left pedestrians -- particularly those with mobility issues -- facing an intimidating trek across the road, something Cunningham said officials are evaluating for a solution.

By the end of 2017, ODOT will have increased road capacity by 7 percent. That entails Hamilton, Butler, Clermont, Warren, Clinton, Preble and Greene counties.

Then, of course, there's the Brent Spence. Not only would the new bridge double the capacity crossing the river, but it would also mean widening the approaching on-land freeway from both directions, according to the current joint proposal from ODOT and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Kentucky lawmakers still have to figure out a way to finance that $2.6 billion project, but -- speaking of the Bluegrass State -- there's no shortage of other widening projects in the works south of the Ohio River.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is currently planning a widening project for I-71/75 between U.S. 42 and Mount Zion Road in Boone County, and has completed several capacity-increasing projects in Grant County in recent years.

Nearly half of the projects the cabinet is considering involve some sort of widening, including a proposed $1.8 billion expansion of Interstate 471 in Campbell County. Those 30-some proposed projects add up to nearly $3.5 billion.

To be clear, not all of those projects will be recommended for funding, let alone approved by lawmakers for the next transportation budget cycle.

But it reveals where transportation officials on both the state and local level have their sights set: making more room for cars.

The logic is, especially on interstates and highways where speed limits are higher, widening projects increase safety by allowing more space between cars traveling in adjacent lanes. It also more evenly distributes vehicles on the road, according to Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's planning engineers' set of guidelines.

"Overall, maneuverability increases, which results in greater safety: There is reduction of rear-end and side-swipe crashes," they read.

Here's the thing, though. 

Of course, I get and greatly appreciate as a road user the priority-one status safety has when thinking about road projects. But there's a rapidly growing school of thought that suggests widening roads could actually make them more dangerous.

In a now-famous and often-cited (at least among transportation nerds like me) article for Wired magazine, Adam Mann thinks through the issue in economic terms:

"The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more." 

My favorite way to think about it is through the lens of the 1989 classic film "Field of Dreams": If you build it, they will drive.

By this logic, a road-widening project might put more space between cars, but it also brings more cars to the road. This makes many scratch their heads when they hear these widening projects are meant to ease congestion.

The safety argument also goes into question when thinking about induced demand -- more cars equal higher risk of driver error equals increased road hazard.

It's also true that people are just driving more.

A recent policy briefing by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation found that the amount of time Americans spend behind the wheel is increasing. But in that same briefing, environmental science and policy professor Susan Hardy said scientists have found that:

"Increased road capacity leads to more miles traveled in the short term … and even more miles traveled in the long term, leading to as much as a one-to-one ratio between increase in capacity and increase in traffic."

On the city street level, the term "road diet" has begun to catch on among urban planners, both as a way to increase safety as well as a community development strategy. Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine is probably the most prominent local example, but the idea is percolating throughout the region more and more.

The safety component is fairly straight forward: Fewer and narrower lanes with wider sidewalks -- and, ideally, bike-designated street lanes -- mean drivers will typically drive more slowly and non-auto users will have designated spaces.

More walkable neighborhoods also tend to spur development, as Cincinnati has seen in the revitalization of Over-the-Rhine, to name one example.

Another approach engineers are considering more and more are technological approaches to reducing congestion, as an alternative to paving more lanes, Cunningham said.

For example, ODOT is gearing to pilot what's called a "running on the shoulder" solution, which would allow drivers to use a reinforced shoulder lane during peak traffic hours. The agency will be piloting that in Columbus.

Other congestion solutions involve signal timing, an endeavor that the city of Cincinnati recently approved for the Central Business District for the first time in more than 20 years.

"Our folks are out and about all the time adjusting signal timing," Cunningham said.

All of this goes to show, whether on the interstate or in the inner city, making roads bigger doesn't really serve anyone's best interest -- except maybe the contractors hired to widen them.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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