Will Liberty Street ever get its 'road diet'?

Posted at 12:30 PM, Mar 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-14 15:51:43-04

CINCINNATI — A years-in-the-making redesign of Liberty Street -- one of Cincinnati's most vital and heavily-traveled roads -- might have taken one step closer to reality this week.

And then again, it might not have.

A lengthy discussion among City Council members and the mayor Monday afternoon answered some -- but also posed new -- questions about the Liberty Street improvement project, referred to by some as a "road diet." The biggest conflict still stirring among lawmakers centers around what is a perpetual challenge for Over-the-Rhine: on-street parking.

It's a plan that the OTR Community Council has toiled over for more than five years, and it would reduce the road's current seven-lane configuration down to five lanes instead. But not everyone agrees the area's parking and traffic demands can handle a narrower Liberty Street.

Why put Liberty Street on a diet?

One hope behind the narrowing project is to make the street safer for all types of users -- drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Liberty Street today carries roughly 16,000 vehicles per day -- a heavy volume, to be sure. With multiple lanes traveling in each direction, it can also be a hotspot for speeding and other dangerous driving habits like swerving around other cars and between lanes.

Samantha Heath said she sees it every day.

"People zip through. It's high-speed traffic because we're connected by two highways on either end," said the OTR resident. She's lived near Liberty on and off for the last five years.

Cincinnati Police crash data back up Heath's perception of Liberty, showing approximately 1,700 traffic crash incidents occurring on Liberty Street since 2013. The data are unclear, however, about how many of those crashes were speed-related. More than 30 of those incidents involved pedestrians, police records show.

There's plenty of research confirming that narrower roads often mean less dangerous driving. As recently as last year, Northside saw success in slowing traffic when the city reduced Hamilton Avenue to one lane in each direction.

While Liberty Street is a much different environment than Hamilton Avenue -- and serves different needs -- urban planners working with the OTRCC agreed a narrower Liberty Street would make it safer.

"The whole purpose for narrowing Liberty Street is because it was out of balance," meaning it prioritizes car-traffic flow above all other modes of transportation, said Jeff Raser, formerly of Glaserworks Architecture + Urban Design, during Monday's committee hearing. Raser was one of the chief designers of the road diet plan. "The reason we wanted to narrow Liberty Street was to make it a more pedestrian-friendly street -- to tap the potential of it for both commerce and livability."

View of Liberty Street looking west at its intersection with Walnut Street before the road was widened to seven lanes. (Provided/City of Cincinnati)

Raser said Liberty Street achieved its current girth more than a half-century ago: In the 1950s, the city dramatically widened the two-lane road in order to accommodate vehicles wanting to connect between the then-newly constructed Interstates 71 and 75. Fort Washington Way -- the chief connector between the two interstates today -- did not exist yet.

Another argument for narrowing Liberty Street is that it separates the neighborhood into two halves, making it difficult for people enjoying the recent development in south OTR to walk safely to the neighborhood's northern half above Liberty, according to City Councilman Chris Seelbach.

"It separates all of Over-the-Rhine, and it makes it very unsafe for people trying to cross from south Over-the-Rhine into north Over-the-Rhine," said Seelbach, himself an OTR resident who has led the push for the Liberty Street road diet for the majority of his eight years on City Council.

Competing plans, competing interests

Roughly a dozen community members testified on the Liberty Street improvements at Monday's committee hearing, some in favor of narrowing the road and some opposed. Right now, there are two competing plans.

The "road diet" plan -- which has the support of a super-majority of City Council -- would shrink Liberty Street from seven to five lanes. It would reserve the two outer curb lanes for on-street parking from 7 p.m. - 7 a.m. and on weekends, but those lanes would open to traffic flow during the day.

Five-lane configuration. The curb lanes would allow parking from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. (Provided/City of Cincinnati)

The other plan -- championed by Mayor John Cranley -- would preserve all seven lanes, but it would add curb bump-outs at each of the strip's 12 crosswalks (at six major intersections). The bump-outs would reduce the distance required for people to cross Liberty.

Seven-lane configuration with 24-hour parking lanes and curb bump-outs at intersections. (Provided/City of Cincinnati)

Cranley's argument -- as well as several speakers at Monday's hearing -- is that the neighborhood cannot afford to lose all-day on-street parking.

"Why we would want to eliminate close to 100 spaces on Liberty, when we are severely under-parked, seems to be stubborn for the sake of being stubborn," Cranley said -- referring to the road diet plan's limiting of parking on Liberty Street to nighttime only.

Cranley wasn't alone. John Lofaro presides over Chatfield College, which has a campus located on the southeast corner of Liberty Street and Central Parkway. He testified that losing Liberty Street's on-street parking spaces would be devastating to his students.

"They're overcoming so many challenges already; adding parking on top of them is unconscionable," Lofaro said, saying the majority of his students' parking needs occur between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., when parking on Liberty Street would be restricted.

Then there's the question of traffic: There's no question that a narrower Liberty Street will mean more traffic congestion, unless more drivers choose to use Fort Washington Way as a connection to or between I-71 and I-75.

WCPO requested from the city any data available regarding the estimated traffic impact on Liberty if or when it is narrowed, and is awaiting that information.

But Heath said she thinks it will mean backups.

"I hope it works well, but I think that sounds congested. I really do," she said. "Definitely with morning and afternoon traffic, I think that'll cause congestion."

Where we stand now

Getting the Liberty Street road diet funded and approved by a veto-proof super-majority of City Council has a history that is as complicated as all the competing interests at work. There have been prior versions that included bike lanes and other amenities that ultimately never made it to the final version.

Cranley has vetoed multiple versions of the road diet plan in years past -- citing his concerns over losing parking access -- and even vetoed the current five-lane option last fall after a majority of Council approved it. It took a veto-override -- which required gaining an extra "Yea" vote -- in the form of a budget ordinance by City Council to finally approve funding for the design. When that passed, City Council allowed the administration 60 days to assess and come back with recommended revisions before beginning the process.

Seelbach said that window has passed, and filed a motion last month to compel the city administration to begin work on the five-lane design.

"We have funding to do a road diet of Liberty Street," Seelbach said.

Alongside Seelbach's motion Monday, the committee considered an ordinance -- submitted by Cranley -- that would compel the administration to pursue the Liberty Street project, but only if it preserves all on-street parking. The committee moved to amend Cranley's ordinance at its core -- removing any language about preserving on-street parking. Now the mayor has a choice to refer that ordinance to a City Council committee again or let it die.

Ultimately, Seelbach said, the project has the funding and should move forward.

"It's fully funded and the neighborhood supports it. A super-majority of Council supports it," he said.

Because his motion passed Monday's committee, it could become a topic of discussion again at Wednesday's meeting of the full council -- although, motions approved by City Council do not bear the power of law.