Why I-73 Has Not Been Built in Ohio Yet


Transportation is geography, but transportation can be political as well. You have land use issues, development concerns, and problems of political chain of command. These problems are evident when concerning the building of interstate freeways. You have federal officials mandating its building, state officials scrambling to find funding for it, and local leaders debating whether or not to go along with this idea. Limited access, divided highways are one way to alleviate traffic problems, but no one wants that solution near them. These people's defense will include that their farmland is the best, their woods are the most scenic, or that they had moved from the "city" and did not want to go back to it. These circumstances helped to shape the debate about Interstate 73 in Delaware County, Ohio
I want to show 4 points in this paper. How I-73 came about and it's history in Central Ohio. How the process for choosing a routing for I-73 proceeded and doomed it to failure. Why the public never was entirely behind the I-73 project. Finally, how funding for the project was blundered away by one state government department that has delayed the construction for now. Between 1991 and 1996, plans were organized for an interstate freeway to go north-south through Ohio. Those plans have yet to be put into action, in Ohio, due to two factors; the state has never been 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 most of the discussion about this freeway concerns the routing of I-73 in Delaware County, Ohio. It is there that the need for a new freeway is greatest, but the protest against it was the strongest as well. 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." This would be a United States Congress established system of highways of national significance, as compared to the original system of freeways established with section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 . One of the routes designated in the 1991 bill was a Great Lakes to Mid Atlantic Corridor. It would connect Detroit, Toledo, Columbus, Huntington, Bluefield, Winston-Salem, and Charleston South Carolina. This routing was given the numeral designation I-73. For the Ohio portion, I-73 was to follow US 23 from Toledo to Portsmouth and US 52 from Portsmouth to Chesapeake where it would go into West Virginia. The routing of I-73 seemed fairly easy to do everywhere in the state of Ohio, except in Delaware, Franklin, and Pickaway Counties. 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. 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. For the next three years I-73 would be an OTC project with ODOT having no part in planning it. This would ultimately affect the future of the project.
Two years after the US Congress had designated it for construction, I-73 first came to light for much of the public in late 1993 with the announcement that the OTC would do a feasibility study of it. The preliminary idea for routing I-73 in Delaware County was to have it go south along US 23, from Marion County, to between the south end of Delaware Reservoir and the north end of Delaware city limits. From there I-73 would branch off to the east then south going around NE Delaware to US 36 east. I-73 would go along US 36 east to I-71, where it would leave US 36 and multiplex with I-71 into Columbus. The state of Ohio did have a committee that worked on the routing of the I-73 corridor. They did however also asked for a local preference as to where I-73 should be built. At that time though, no one had done any traffic routing studies for the freeway. So due to a lack of empirical backing to help select a route the answer from the local Delaware committee at that time was essentially, 'We don't know. Give us some numbers to help us choose.'
Over the course of six months between progress reports, development plans in the northeast section of Columbus were quickly beginning to interfere with the proposals. With the advent of the Polaris Amphitheater and the (then) new Bank One headquarters in Southern Delaware County and development starting on Leslie Wexner's Easton, the added traffic that I-73 would bring to the freeways of that area was a concern for local planners. Various people and organizations brought forth debate, alternatives, and suggestions as to the routing and necessity of I-73. One idea was the proposed building of another outerbelt around Columbus. There were also proposed routes going directly south from Delaware to I-270 using US 23 or SR 315, or going southwest along US 42, from Delaware, to US 33 then back to I-270 in Dublin. Still, none of these suggestions were under any sort of official consideration or study yet (thus no maps were made of these ideas).
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. Allan 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. The OTC even went as far as to say that the Delaware section would be built first with Johnson saying, "...I think that could provide some of the most beneficial things soonest." However, Delaware officials stated that they were having difficulty in contacting members of the OTC and were becoming impatient over this lack of communication.
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 well . It was soon after this that the first letter to the editor of the Delaware paper concerning I-73 was published. In it was a theme that would be heard many times over the following two years. There were no good routes. Any route would force people and businesses to relocate, thus creating more problems than solutions, and not to mention encouraging the population boom in Delaware County.

Process Begins

On March 16, 1995, the I-73 debate began in earnest. That was the date on which the first proposed corridors for I-73 in and around Columbus were publicly announced. Eight different alternatives for routing I-73 though Delaware county were mapped out, and included were several more involving the surrounding counties. Cost estimates for the route between Circleville and Marion, which would go through Delaware County, ranged from two hundred sixty-one million dollars to six hundred seventy-seven million dollars, pending on I-73's routing and how much of the current road system would be used.
When the local officials looked at the plans, they were skeptical that I-73 would help to alleviate any transportation problems. Their main concern was lightening the traffic load on US 23, south of Delaware. None of them felt that any route that branched off from US 23, north of Delaware, would help with their traffic problems. If they could get I-73 to go around south and west of Delaware however, it could ease traffic access to the industrial park in the SW portion and help diffuse traffic concerns on the NW side as well. However, the routing of I-73 to the west of Delaware would affect an avigational easement needed for expansion of the local airport's main runway to five thousand feet. It could also have possibly taken out a city park in the northwest end of Delaware as well . When one local resident 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." The question became how does a state official, based in Cleveland, know more about local traffic than the Delaware county and city officials do. Showing all this "concern" without any studies done showed I-73 as a top-down project being forced upon the citizenry.

Public Reaction

The citizenry came out in force. To say the least, the general public's view was extremely negative. Regularly, any public meeting concerning I-73 in Delaware had the most attendees in that series of meetings. Surprisingly, despite the public view, OTC members were constantly stating publicly that they were pleased with the large turnouts in Delaware. However, the OTC's single minded focus was fairly evident in one statement after the first public showing of the I-73 plans. James Brennan, of the OTC, theorized that most visitors were "positive" about the I-73 proposal, and many would like construction to start immediately. Maybe yes, maybe no. Stated comments from the public at large contrasted with that view. "We fought really hard to keep the dam out ... and now we're going to have to fight the highway." "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."
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 Delaware's transportation concerns, others saw it as someone else's idea being forced down their throat and that it wouldn't help the county, or the city. Delaware officials viewed I-73 rather oddly. They always talked about it in a local sense, never expanding their boundaries past the state borders, or mentioning that it was federally mandated to be built as part of a bigger system. The public's reaction was unsure. They saw the need for it, but no one wanted the route running near their area.
The first group to come out against a routing of I-73 were residents in Brown Township in Delaware County in April of 1995. This group was mostly farmers who did not want to give up their land. They saw a routing of I-73 through their area as causing them in particular more problems than it would solve. They did not want to sacrifice farm land, homes, and local businesses that would cause "economic detriment to township residents." Their first meeting, where their opposition was formed, drew thirty-five people. Their second meeting drew over a hundred people. Their tactics were to get county officials to support their protests, search for other groups against I-73, and continue to write letters to politicians who could influence the project.

How the OTC Bowed Out

Meanwhile, at this same time, the OTC decided to increase the tolls on the Ohio Turnpike eighty percent. Their reasoning was to help pay for widening the turnpike to three lanes in each direction the entire length of the turnpike and for replacement of all sixteen service plazas along the turnpike. There was no mentioning 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 had published estimates on the cost of expanding the turnpike rise 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.
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. 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 (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. 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). 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.

Final Decision

Meanwhile, the local I-73 committee worked on choosing a proposed route. With the protests coming largely from the eastern half of Delaware County, officials looked to the western half for a solution for I-73 . Citizens there caught on quickly and protested the highway going through their area. Due to that, the committee crossed off the western routes and looked at a central and southern route. Again, people protested the freeway coming through their neighborhood. That sent the committee back to the original plan for I-73. The original plan would have I-73 go along US 23 to near Delaware, then bypass the city to the North and east to US 36, then go east to I-71 to go south to Columbus. It would cost the least to build for ODOT. It would take up the least amount of farmland, housing, businesses, and it would affect the fewest number of roads. This routing would do the least harm for everyone involved.
Interestingly it wasn't the most direct or the quickest route, and traffic study results were mixed. There were arguments for all the traffic to stay on US 23, but that would lead to massive congestion that no highway(s) could cure on the approach to I-270. Some even went as so far as to state that the bypass would be so problematic to traffic in southern Delaware County, that it wasn't even worth being built. Some believed the bypass in itself would create more traffic and become a congested future issue. Finally, there remained the rest who thought the bypass would be just fine.
On April 24, 1996 after much consternation and teeth gnashing the Northeast Delaware by-pass option was accepted as the routing of I-73 through Delaware County. Delaware City officials and others from outside Delaware County supported the plan. However in opposition to the city, county officials did not care for the final routing, citing that it was no solution to any of the current problems with traffic in Southern Delaware County. Further more, the public was up in arms, denouncing the decision. Interestingly, all became quiet the issue not long after.
With I-73 falling under the auspices of ODOT, lack of funding has kept the building of this highway quiet for four 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 the proposed linking of U.S. 23 with Interstate 71 across central Delaware County is, "dead. I don't know how else to say it ... Those are political realities ... Basically, people said they didn't want it."


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 OTC and other local planners to have a proposal that could solve some of Delaware's transportation problems in an economic fashion caused local officials to disagree on the freeway. The city of Delaware backed the I-73 plan. Delaware County officials held their opinion till the end, but eventually came out against I-73. Their indecision went parallel with the mood of Delaware County 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. These people only cared about themselves and for the present. It is that kind of thinking that doomed I-73. Eventually I-73 will be built through Ohio and Delaware County, just that the problems described here have only postponed the inevitable from happening.



Untill I can figure out how to add footnotes along the way, the sources for this paper are as follows: Frank Gerlach-I-73/74 corridor webpage, 1997. Richard Weingroff. Delaware Gazette. Toledo Blade. Allen Johnson (OTC director in 1994). Unknown OTC member at a Delaware meeting. Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Ray Lorello.

This paper was originally written in the Spring of 2000 for Urban Political Geography (Geog 660) taught by Kevin Cox at Ohio State University. This paper was slightly revised in March, 2001 for the American Association of Geographers National Conference.
Originally linked to Roadfan.com on October 1, 2001/ Remade on August 6, 2003

Questions and comments concerning this paper can be sent to Sandor Gulyas

Return to the I-73 in Ohio page.