New MLK/I-71 interchange overlooks non-motorists, transit advocates warn

CINCINNATI -- After more than three years of work, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive will finally have its facelift. But some are worried that the road's redesign didn't do enough to think about non-motorists.

"(The Ohio Department of Transportation's) name isn't 'Department of Highways,'" said Derek Bauman, public transit advocate, Over-the-Rhine resident, and candidate for City Council. "I'd like them to take all modes of transportation into account."

The Ohio Department of Transportation is spearheading the $80 million MLK/Interstate 71 interchange project, which began in 2014. The project -- which included two new interstate entrance ramps, road widening, new traffic signals and a new bridge -- is expected to wrap up by the end of summer 2017.

MLK Drive is one of the city's major cross-town connector corridors, linking both Interstates 71 and 75 and connecting Avondale, Walnut Hills, Evanston, Clifton and Camp Washington.

The new ramps were the real impetus behind the project, said Brian Cunningham, spokesperson for ODOT's eighth district, which serves southwest Ohio.

"It was problematic getting in and out of the area," Cunningham said. "Emergency responders had some problems getting to the hospitals." The University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Christ Hospital, and the Veterans' Affairs Hospital all sit in close proximity to MLK and I-71.

'Increased safety, increased accessibility'

Cunningham described the project as allowing for "increased safety and increased accessibility."

The new ramps and road widening are probably the most direct responses to the accessibility issue. The bridge spanning over I-71 was widened to accommodate six lanes, and some portions of MLK were widened to accommodate nine lanes.

Here's a timeline of the work:

Timeline for MLK/I-71 interchange project. Click or tap to enlarge. (Provided)

Urban highways and community

But some are worried by the history urban highway projects like this have, which is a mixed bag.

In her book, "The Living City," Roberta Brandes Getz looked at Cincinnati and the construction of I-75 through the heart of Cincinnati's West End and Queensgate neighborhoods, and how the project specifically impacted the city's African-American communities.

"In the 1950s, Interstate 75 bulldozed through Cincinnati's West End, a down-and-out mostly black community," Getz wrote. "Encouraged by blockbusting real-estate practices occurring in downtown areas like Mount Auburn, some of the displaced West Enders relocated to Mount Auburn, refilling vacancies left by whites moving to the suburbs and alarming enough of the remaining whites to encourage white flight."

As WCPO recently reported, Covington's Lewisburg neighborhood in Northern Kentucky experienced a similar impact with the arrival of I-75.

Located just west of I-75, Lewisburg has more than 100 vacant buildings and lots, according to Covington’s Center for Great Neighborhoods. Many of the houses, built as single-family homes more than 100 years ago, have been converted into multi-unit rentals, ensuring a transient population.

The Atlantic's Alana Samuel reported in 2016 on the connection between highways and poverty in America

"A freeway passing through the heart of a city does not jibe very well with an urban renaissance," she wrote. "This increase of people heading to the suburbs in their cars caused something else new: lots and lots of traffic. And to city planners, this was making communities unhealthy."

Bauman worries the MLK redesign, with nine lanes for pedestrians to cross, might have a similar impact.

"Any time you have the widening of surface streets, it's makes walkability a bigger challenge," Bauman said.

Cameron Hardy, president of the Better Bus Coalition, has a similar concern: "People are definitely not going to want to walk on the sidewalk with nine lanes running through there. That seems extremely busy; that seems loud."

At the same time, though, the I-75-driven exodus from West End to Mount Auburn also resulted in an increased focus on affordable housing in the area and the creation of the Mount Auburn Good Housing Foundation, Getz reported. 

"They bought and fixed up absentee-owned houses -- 75 percent of the neighborhood was absentee-owned -- and either sold them or converted them into tenant cooperatives," Getz wrote. "Tenant cooperatives were the preferred mechanism, in order to not let control of the property leave the community."

What about the bus?

The Better Bus Coalition is a group of transit advocates pushing for enhancements to Cincinnati Metro's bus service. Hardy thinks the MLK redesign should have done more to think about alternative modes of transportation along the corridor.

"The MLK exchange, it's pretty blatant to see that, in my opinion, I think it has a lot to do with gentrification," Hardy told WCPO. "There's a reason that bus service, better sidewalks for people were not mentioned."

As far as sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure go, Cunningham said the redesign includes a 17-foot wide shared-use path across the north side of the bridge.

"The previous bridge had one narrow sidewalk on the north side," he said. "The new one will have a shared-use path, two-way on the north side, elevated to sidewalk level, 17 feet wide, with the understanding that five feet of that is a buffer to motorized traffic."

As far as bus service, three of Metro's most popular routes run through the corridor: the 4, the 24 and the 43 lines.

"Avondale has good bus service but it could definitely be better than it is," Hardy said. "You need more crosstown routes, more access to Uptown, more amenities like shelters, and places where people can get bus information. I think that would help ridership.

"It seems like the people at ODOT, the people who make these decisions are extremely out of touch with bus riders and with the purpose of good bus transportation," Hardy said.

When it comes to including bus service enhancements in road projects like this, both ODOT and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which owns and operates Metro -- agree that it comes down to dollars available.

Communication is consistent when ODOT projects overlap SORTA's service area.

"Our planning team works very closely with ODOT whenever there is a project that comes into our service area. We work together to determine what the potential impact would be on our routes as well as on our customers, and that could mean any service impacts or detours we would need to plan for," said Brandy Jones, SORTA spokesperson. "With the MLK interchange project, we did talk with them about what the potential needs would be, as we do have three routes that currently serve along that corridor or that come through that area."

The problem is that SORTA does not receive much funding from ODOT for enhancing its services: Less than 1 percent of Metro's operating and capital budget comes from the state, 9 percent less than an analysis from Policy Matters Ohio recently recommended.

"As far as improvements go for the area, we do not receive any funding from ODOT for things like shelters, benches or other customer amenities," Jones said. "Those types of amenities come out of Metro's capital budget, which, currently, we are experiencing a deficit."

Without a new, permanent source of funding, Metro faces a $44 million defiicit by 2019, Jones said. To address this budget problem, SORTA's board of trustees recently approved a resolution to pursue placing a county-wide sales tax levy on the 2018 ballot.

Cunningham also said his department feels the pinch.

"We provide funding where we can based upon the criteria that we have to follow," he said. "The problem is that there's not enough funding to go around for everything.

"The gas tax, while it served well for many decades, is in need of a reboot because fuel efficiency is increasing, the dollar doesn't go as far today as it did 30 years ago, and there's growing demand," he said.

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

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