Halfway through 10-year I-75 project, officials worry about funding 'scarcity'

So far, work has been on time and on budget

CINCINNATI — If it feels like Interstate 75 has been under construction for years, that’s because it has.

2015 marks five years into the half-billion dollar Mill Creek Expressway Project, a 10-year overhaul of Cincinnati’s I-75 corridor from the Western Hills Viaduct to just south of the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway.

The good news for motorists who commute each day through the congested corridor is that construction crews are halfway finished, working on time and on budget.

The bad news: that means commuters still have five years of winding, narrow lanes, shifting traffic patterns and orange barrels to endure.

The decade-long project has completed three of nine phases, the last of which is scheduled to wrap up construction in August 2020 — maybe.

The construction comes as the result of a recommendation from the North South Transportation Initiative, launched in 2000 by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission. It is one of three major projects planned for I-75 from the Brent Spence Bridge to Interstate 275.

Learn more about each phase of the Mill Creek Expressway Project in the timeline below. Use the arrows on the right and left to scroll:

 

The commission studied how traffic flow and safety could improve while limiting the environmental impact on adjacent properties to the 60-year-old corridor.

Current work includes:

  • Widening and rehabilitating pavement on I-75 from the Western Hills Viaduct to the Monmouth Street overpass
  • Improvements to the Hopple Street interchange
  • A new bridge over I-75 at Hopple Street
  • Replacement of railroad overpass south of Norwood Lateral
  • Construction on I-75 overpass at Vine Street

And if you feel like you’ve finally gotten used to the flow of things on I-75, don’t get too comfortable. This month, mainline traffic is scheduled to shift as a new phase of construction begins.

“Patience is the big thing,” said Brian Cunningham, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project.

Cunningham said, while more than 140,000 vehicles go through the corridor each day, the headaches are an unavoidable inconvenience.

“We are not going to be able to avoid impacting (a driver's) commute,” Cunningham told WCPO, while emphasizing the inconvenience is motivation to work that much more efficiently. “It’s a major thoroughfare...We’re out there working. We’re making progress every day.”

But the project has its fair share of challenges.

Cunningham said a big stumbling block for the project has been to secure funding, which he called "scarce," and that's one reason why the 2020 completion date can only really be an optimistic estimate. While three of nine phases of construction have reached completion, another three have yet to find funding.

Another factor contributing to the project's length and cost, Cunningham said, is that I-75 has never had such an overhaul in its 60-year history.

"This is the first time we've gotten into a full depth replacement," he said. "That's basically going all the way down to the gravel and building it back up."

According to Cunningham, the extensiveness of the rehabilitation was necessary to provide a safe driving environment. 

"We weren't able to sustain a good riding surface because the base was crumbling," he said.

It's something Cunningham said is happening all across the state -- in Dayton, Toledo, Columbus and Cleveland in particular.

"The major metro areas are really seeing a deterioration of their pavement in their urban cores," he said.

But the road toward those safety improvements comes with hazards, and Cunningham said crashes along the construction sites are a consistent problem. Even though crews try to strategize their major restrictions by scheduling heavy work and closure at night and around major events, a WCPO analysis of local traffic crash data showed the two locations with the highest crash density in Cincinnati sit along the path of construction:

I-75 between Marshall and MLK/Hopple 

Interstate 75 between Marshall and MLK/Hopple

235 - crashes 2012-2014
77 - average crashes per year

Source: ODOT

I-75 between Marshall and MLK/Hopple

Interstate 75 between MLK/Hopple and Monmouth

215 - crashes 2012-2014
72 - average crashes per year

Source: ODOT

The stretch between Findlay Street and the Western Hills Viaduct also saw 205 crashes in that time, according to ODOT data.

READ MORE: Where do most car crashes occur in Cincinnati?

Ultimately, though, "a lot of [the crashes] are preventable," according to Cunningham, who pointed to distracted driving combined with limited space to maneuver along the stretch as a primary cause of crashes.

And no list of I-75 construction woes would be complete without mentioning the Hopple Street overpass collapse that killed a construction worker and injured a driver in January. 

Despite the hurdles, Cunningham said his agency is focused on completion. "That's our goal," he told WCPO. "We will work to make sure if funding becomes available we can continue on. We're not stopping because we don't have construction funding."

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