CINCINNATI -- Construction on local highways is nothing new. Famed Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray once wrote about traffic in Cincinnati, saying, “They still haven’t finished the freeway here. It’s Kentucky’s turn to use the cement mixer.”
That was in the 1960s.
The Ohio Department of Transportation calls a roughly 10-mile path north of downtown, “The I-75 Mill Creek Expressway.” It’s part of a larger project that extends from Northern Kentucky nearly all the way to Dayton.
Now, growth comes with pain. Anyone who has been through an awkward adolescence (as if there’s another kind) can relate to that. Construction projects on major thoroughfares are just that: growing pains. The problem is, they often come after traffic has already become a problem in that particular area. That’s just the nature of the beast — and this beast is growing.
A traffic congestion study on the OKI Regional Council of Governments shows peak travel times have increased by eight minutes in the past four years, on average. Some treks have increased even more. For example, a rush trip from the airport to Sharonville averaged 29 minutes in 2011. Last year, that same trip averaged 54 minutes — nearly twice as long.
The transportation engineers and urban planners can look ahead to a degree, but it’s not easy to prognosticate what growth patterns will be decades down the road. That's exactly what is behind the current construction.
“The fact of the matter is, I-75 was crumbling,” said Brian Cunningham, spokesman for ODOT District 8, which is overseeing the construction. “This is a capacity-adding project, but it is also a maintenance project.”
Cunningham added he believes this to be the most extensive maintenance project on the interstate since it was built in the late 1950s and early ’60s. This is the roadway equivalent of having a lot of minor dental work done to prevent the root canal and then needing the root canal anyway. The reason is the same, too: trying to patch something while waiting for the best time or the funding or both to do what needs to be done.
“This is a major thoroughfare, not only for Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, but a major commercial route as well,” Cunningham said.
Indeed, much of the traffic that flows through town does just that — goes through — without being related to the nearly 2 million of us who live and work in the area.
The question on the minds of most commuters, however, is when will construction on I-75 going to be complete?
Well, the Mill Creek project comprises nine different phases, some of which are underway concurrently (hence the seemingly endless construction). Phase Five of the project, scheduled to begin in 2017, includes redoing the I-74/I-75 interchange, and isn’t scheduled for completion until 2020. The beginning of construction on Phase Eight, a mainline from the Norwood Lateral to the Cross County Highway, hasn’t yet been scheduled, although the design is nearly complete.
The advice for commuters is patience, which is not what anyone wants to hear when they are crawling home while watching the needle dip toward “E.” But like the traffic itself, there doesn’t seem to be any way around it.
“Our work affects thousands and thousands of people, but it is necessary to make the road more safe and efficient,” Cunningham said. “Obviously, if nothing is done about the (Brent Spence) bridge, it will remain a choke point, but with the projects underway and on the way, there will be some relief. Folks will see vast improvements."
It’s just going to take time — and maybe better sharing of that cement mixer.