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Fort Washington Way – a look at how one city actually handled their Interstate issue

07.23.2013 by André Natta · → Leave a comment

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bridgeoveri71Yes, there’s recently been a significant amount of focus on proposed plans for I-20/59. Diehards have been aware of the topic since last summer when the initial plan was presented at a public hearing only to be sent back (at the request of city and county officials – but more on that later). While much of the recent conversation has looked at cities currently going through similar effort, I thought it’d make some sense to look at one example where the battle’s been fought and the resolution is still a work in progress. Enter a rebuilt Fort Washington Way (FWW) in Cincinnati, Ohio – a creative approach to handling the passage of I-71 and U.S. 50 through the city adjacent to the waterfront.

I’ve had the opportunity to drive FWW through Cincinnati often over the last 10 years. My most recent chance was late last month on the way back from a trip to upstate New York for a wedding. I’d watched its development play out online via Planetizen (an insane resource for planning and urban issues geeks) – though the older archives aren’t accessible anymore. Luckily, the folks at Urban Cincy did an incredible four-part series (1, 2, 3, 4) three years ago chronicling some of the foresight in this compromised solution up north. Cincinnati-Transit.net does an excellent job providing historical context for both the original FWW and the one used by area commuters today. I’d always wanted a photo of how they treated the narrower roadways over the road, as pictured above, meaning it was time to make a longer pit stop.

Getting better acquainted with the project has me wondering if we’re leaving out a few questions as we continue to talk about it. I’ll warn you I’m basing my thoughts and observations on the idea of sinking the interstate. The same questions apply if the road is shifted, albeit with a much broader range of results available. I’ll also point out the nonexistence of sexy, immediate solutions – as proven via this story about parking filed in 2009 – but it’s something to remember regardless of what happens.

Is it possible to complete the project in phases? The redevelopment of FWW in Cincinnati was part of a much broader redevelopment plan for the city’s waterfront. The same opportunity exists with the sinking proposal as it could allow for expansion of both the BJCC and the Birmingham Museum of Art either immediately adjacent to their current locations or close by. Our transit center is already destined for the southern edge of the city’s central business district, but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t be thinking about future needs as we continue a public conversation about it. The rebuilt road would simply be the first phase, with the access roads still possible along either side enabling a civic boulevard the likes of which we still need psychologically here in Birmingham. The current phase underway in Cincinnati includes a wide-ranging engagement of the public, making sure their ideas are considered and heard as officials determine exactly what goes on top of the roadway. I’m not as familiar with the situation surrounding air rights over I-20/59 (FWW is actually both I-71 and U.S. 50, something that enabled Cincinnati to maintain their air rights), so there’s still a question in my mind about what’s currently possible and what can be persuaded into being. It’s also important to point out that the city of Cincinnati was – and still is – considered the lead agency on the project.

Have we publicly discussed how the city may be able to “fill the gap” cost-wise? We know the alternatives will cost more money. We know there are a vast majority of people who want to see the alternatives seriously considered. We haven’t publicly floated any ideas about how to “fill the gap” between the cost ALDOT is willing to cover and the actual cost of any alternative built – at least not recently.

The additional license fees and taxes proposed and implemented by the Langford administration are still being collected. Maybe they can be used as a funding source? Is there a way to expand the tax increment financing (TIF) district already in place downtown, enabling some of the increased monies potentially available from recapitalization to go towards an alternative proposal’s construction? Maybe we look to the parking authority as a funding source (though that’s the subject for another piece – and a whole new cans of worms)? If we find out we can do whatever we want on the lids covering the sunken roadway, could we attempt to treat it as another Railroad Park – could we raise the money to fill the gap? A possible last minute issue in Cincinnati in 2000 resulted in demonstrating just what the business community and the city would be willing to contribute if it really wants to see this type of development occur, with funding sources more easily identifiable later on as residential development moved forward.

Do we know the whole story or just the most recent chapter? Something of significance is remembering the original proposal from ALDOT. When they held their first public hearing last July (the one that allows them to correctly claim four such meetings in the process), their plan consisted of shutting down traffic similar to what they’ve been doing for the stretch of road between Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport and the I-459 interchange and simply replacing the decking. The reason we’re looking at the current unpopular plan is because both the city (with representatives from the mayor’s office in attendance at the public hearing after the request was made earlier that day) and the county asked for ALDOT to come up with something else – in part because there were many upset with the idea of simply repairing and retaining the status quo. Yes, existing proposals for sinking the road already existed, but for various reasons, they weren’t talked about as much as they needed to be at that time. We’re making up for lost time now, but we need to be sure we know everything, including recognizing the neighborhoods originally destroyed and affected by its initial construction. The recent debacle meeting at ALDOT headquarters with the city makes many of us wary and unsure – and with great reason…

As we move forward, it may help to look for answers to these questions and others. It could be the difference between getting what we want and getting what we need. After all, there’s no better way to show how much you believe in the importance of the project than by caring enough to ask the right questions.

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