What brought me here today is the politics of Transportation. To be more precise, the politics of highway building and planning. We are no longer in the world of Robert Moses, who gave us the expressways and parkways that brought us to New York City. We are in a world in which federal officials mandate the building of interstates, state officials scramble to find funding for them, and local leaders debate whether or not to go along with the idea. Limited access, divided highways are one way to alleviate traffic problems, but no one wants that solution near them. The defense offered by citizens include that their farmland is the best, their woods are the most scenic, or that they have moved from the "city" and don't want to go back to it. These circumstances helped to shape the debate about Interstate 73 in much of Ohio between 1991-96.
I have 3 points that I will cover in this presentation. How I-73 came about. A description of the public involvement concerning the routing. And lastly, how a legislative decision in the end stopped the continuation of the project in Ohio.
The plans for the construction of I-73 have yet to be put into action, in Ohio, due to two factors; the state never being able to get favorable public opinion to back it; and the lack of funds in the state of Ohio to build it. The focus of this presentation will be the routing of I-73 in Ohio with examples coming from Central Ohio, where I reside. It is there that the need for a new freeway is the greatest, but the protest against it was the strongest as well. The question I hope to answer is, 'Why has Interstate 73 yet to be built in Ohio?'
Interstate 73 was first proposed in 1991 as part of The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). ISTEA would have created a "National Highway System."1 One of the routes designated in the 1991 bill was a Great Lakes to Mid Atlantic Corridor. It was to connect Detroit, Toledo, Columbus, Huntington, Bluefield, W. Va, Winston-Salem, and Charleston, South Carolina. It would later be amended in 1995 to start in Sault Ste. Marie end in Myrtle Beach 2. This routing was given the numeral designation Interstate 73. The routing of I-73 seemed fairly easy to do everywhere in the state of Ohio, except in Central Ohio. In that area lay one of the major difficulties in getting I-73 from paper to concrete and asphalt.
In a case of lucky foreshadowing, in 1990 (then) Governor George Voinovich had approved expanding the Ohio Turnpike Commission's authority to allow it to fund other highway projects, other than the current Ohio Turnpike.3 This gave Ohio a "backdoor" approach for highway funding if the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) did not have enough funds to properly plan or construct any new highways. By the end of 1993 Governor Voinovich had given approval for the Ohio Turnpike Commission (OTC) to do a feasibility study for the proposed I-73 in Ohio.4 The OTC in turn enlisted five firms involved with construction, engineering, and similar fields to provide consultant services for the study, design, and construction. They were be referred to as the Ohio Corridor Development Consortium (OCDC).5
It took two years to go from the national designation to acting on these impulses with OTC's announcement in late 1993 that they would do a feasibility study on I-73. The preliminary idea for routing I-73 in Ohio was to generally follow US 23 with exceptions around Toledo, Columbus, and Portsmouth.. The state of Ohio did have a committee that worked on the routing of the I-73 corridor. That committee's strategy was to have a route for the interstate and then go back to the local communities to ask them where they would like to see I-73 go. However, no one had done any traffic routing studies. Lacking empirical backing to help select routes left local communities stumped. They wanted some figures before they made any decisions. The OCDC did get a recommended routing for I-73 from both the city of Columbus and its regional planning agency. Both political entities decided they wanted I-73 to be routed along the eastern portion of the Columbus outerbelt. However local development plans in the northeast section of Columbus that came about after the original routing idea caused second thoughts from those public servants. These new developments would add more local traffic to a road system that was already close to capacity. Adding the I-73 designation and its impeding traffic didn't seem like a good idea to them after all and eventually became one of the arguments against I-73.
In spite of a lack of actual studies, in 1994 the first stated estimates for I-73, from the Ohio Turnpike Commission, were two billion dollars if it was all built from scratch, with possibly several hundred million being deducted if I-73 could overlap existing limited access highways. Allen Johnson, of the OTC, also came out with a time frame for construction of the freeway. He said a decision to build or scrap the project would come in late 1995 or early 1996. The design work would take another two years, and construction would start in 1997. However, some community officials across Ohio stated that they were having difficulty in contacting members of the OTC and were becoming impatient over this lack of communication.6 Several months later, attitudes improved with the knowledge that a feasibility study was underway and would be completed in March of 1995. With that study, an official cost and alignment for I-73 would be known as well7.
By February of 1995, the I-73 debate began in earnest. The OCDC was going to every town that could be effected by the trajectory of I-73 and showing all the possible alternatives that the interstate could be routed along. They also floated out possible cost projections to the public for the project.
When one resident of a Columbus suburb asked about regulations protecting environmental features making I-73 feasible or even thinkable, an OTC member responded, "If it isn't, we're going to have gridlock, a parking lot between Delaware and Columbus. Wetlands can be "mitigated," but it's expensive... I hope we don't bankrupt the country with regulations like that."8 The question became how does a state official, based in any distant city know more about local traffic than the local county and city officials and planners do. Showing all this "concern" without any studies done displayed I-73 as a top-down project being forced upon the citizenry.
All meetings for I-73 were well attended. Local responses varied by region of the state. Many residents from Columbus north didn't like I-73. They voiced concerns about the interstate possibly decreasing local property values, altering lifestyles, and taking farmland. In Southern Ohio, reception of I-73 was warmer. Citizens looked at it as ending their isolation in the region and as part of the process in recovering lost jobs.
The opposition groups main point in argueing against the freeway was the potential sprawl it would cause. They would claim sprawl would hurt local economics, aesthetics, and the environment. Buildings, roads, excess sewer, watering, and fertilizers would disrupt the "wholeness" around us these people claimed. What these no-growth and slow-growth advocates fail to mention in their retoric against sprawl is their fear of property values declining due to new housing out beyond them attracting their neighbors. The advocates worried their neighborhood would be left to (in their opinion) second-class citizens. One simple rule here, if you follow the money you will find the reason for everything that happens.
However, the OTC's single minded focus was fairly evident in one statement after the first public showing of the I-73 plans in a northern suburb of Columbus. James Brennan, of the OTC, theorized that most visitors were "positive" about the I-73 proposal, and many would like construction to start immediately.9 Well maybe yes, maybe no. Newspaper accounts from the public at large contrasted with that view. One person said, "We fought really hard to keep the dam out ... and now we're going to have to fight the highway."10 Another said, "We did not build out there to be two miles from the highway. 71 is close enough. We moved out here to be in the country."11
So the sides were drawn. State officials wanted the I-73 corridor, but were never forthcoming in releasing informational details to the local officials. Local officials were divided over this project. Some saw it as possibly helping their community's transportation concerns, others saw it as someone else's idea being forced down their throat and that it wouldn't help their county, or city.
While local debates continued over I-73's routing, the OTC decided to increase the tolls on the Ohio Turnpike eighty percent. Their reasoning for it was to help pay for widening the turnpike to three lanes in each direction for the entire length of the turnpike and to replace all sixteen service plazas along the turnpike. There was no mention of new highways or I-73 specifically when they did this. The toll hike raised eyebrows and suspicions among state politicians and others however.
The OTC got into a bad habit of giving out varying estimates on their projects. They borrowed twenty-four million to pay for three new interchanges in 1994, and those interchanges showed up again the following year being funded by the proposed toll hike. Over the course of the summer of '95, the OTC's published estimates on the cost of expanding the turnpike rose seventeen percent. When asked where the money from the year before went, Turnpike Executive Director Allen Johnson said, "It's been used for other projects," but Johnson could not say specifically where the money went. "I can't (tell you) right off the top of my head. We have so many projects under way," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The financial records of the OTC at that time showed that they had $106.7 million dollars on hand and more in investments that could cover much of the costs of the current turnpike expansion, without having to raise tolls. 12
This was a red flag to the state's Congressional Transportation Committees. The Ohio House produced a bill that would limit the OTC to only a ten percent increase in its tolls by July 1st of that year, and all other increases would have to be brought in front of public hearings and the legislature would have a committee to oversee the OTC. One state representative tried to block the use of OTC funds for I-73, but his proposal was negated.13 State Senator Scott Oelslager soon after then brought out a proposal that would end the OTC's involvement with I-73, and any other highway project that wasn't connected to the current Ohio Turnpike. His bill would have let the OTC finish it's study of I-73 (because everyone agreed that there was no sense in stopping mid-stream, and forcing someone else to start over sometime in the future), then it would be out.14 Oelslager's stated reasoning was to limit authority of the governor on transportation needs by keeping the OTC out of ODOT's work (a complete opposite of Voinovich's intentions when he authorized the OTC's involvement in the I-73 project)15. By January of 1996, the Ohio Turnpike Commission conceded to these pressures and decide to bow out of the I-73 project, after the study was completed. Possible construction was to be declared an Ohio Department of Transportation future project. However ODOT had no funding for construction of the freeway for the appreciable future, so there was no sensible time frame.16
With I-73 falling under the auspices of ODOT, lack of funding has kept the building of this highway quiet for five years now, and for who knows how much longer. Even a member of ODOT came out and proclaimed that the latest status of Interstate 73, at least in reference to a proposed linking of U.S. 23 with Interstate 71, north of Columbus is, "dead. I don't know how else to say it ... Those are political realities ... Basically, people said they didn't want it."17
Where did the various proposals for I-73 go wrong? The Ohio Turnpike Commission mishandled public and political communication and thus funding for construction of I-73 was indefinitely postponed. The inability of the OTC and other local planners to have a proposal that could solve some of the transportation problems in the metro Columbus area in an economic fashion caused local officials to disagree on the freeway. In the area north of Columbus, the city of Delaware backed the I-73 plan, but the county officials came out against I-73. The indecision of local politicians went parallel with the mood of local citizens, who were opposed to any proposed route that would affect them personally, but were supportive as long as it was someone else's backyard. An analogy for the citizens would be that they were not able to see the forest for the trees. Eventually I-73 will be built through Ohio, just that the problems described here postponed the inevitable from happening.
By Sandor Gulyas; Reformatted to HTML by Marc Fannin September 17, 2001
1From webpage, the I-73/74 corridor, 1997. Frank Gerlach is quoting language in the 1991 ISTEA bill.
2From the National Highway System Designation Act - 1995
3Mike Shade telling Delaware County-City team about I-73. Delaware Gazette, October 7, 1993
4Forwarded from the Toledo Blade to the Delaware Gazette, November 15, 1993
5From the Anual Report of the Ohio Turnpike Commission in April, 1994
6Delaware Gazette, June 24, 1994
7Interview with Mike Shade in Delaware Gazette, September 19, 1994
8 Elected official meeting about I-73, March 16, 1995
9quoted in Delaware Gazette, March 17, 1995
10Thelma Peterle of Klondike Rd in SW Delaware County. Delaware Gazette, March 17, 1995
11Christina Hansen of Justamere Rd in NE Delaware County. Delaware Gazette, March 17, 1995
12Entire paragraph, forwarded from the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Delaware Gazette, October 30, 1995
13State Rep in question was Rex Damschroder of Fremont. Information on the House bill is from the Delaware Gazette, June 8, 1995
14Delaware Gazette, December 15, 1995
15Paraphrase from Delaware Gazette article, Dec. 15, 1995
16Stated by one of the OTC consultants to I-73 advisory committee. Delaware Gazette, January 24 1996
17 Ray Lorello, the ODOT District Six planning and programming manager. Delaware Gazette, May 27, 1999