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ODOT Interview with Jolene Molitoris: Split Fix

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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The Ohio Department of Transportation is responsible for a wide variety of highway upgrades and maintenance projects throughout Central Ohio, but two of the largest local projects currently in development are the Interstate 70/71 “Split Fix” and the 3C Corridor Passenger Rail system.

We recently sat down with Jolene Molitoris, Director of ODOT, to discuss both of these projects. Part two of our interview focuses on the “Split Fix” and can be found below. Part one of our interview focuses on the 3C Corridor and can be found HERE.

Walker Evans: Let’s switch gears to talk about the 70/71 Split-Fix. This is a project that was born out of safety concerns, so it’s essentially an engineering project. Of course, there are neighborhood connectivity issues, aesthetic concerns, and other things that are being added to the primary focus of  safety improvements. A lot of the community feedback I’ve been hearing makes it sound as if those concerns are not being made as important as they could be. So my question is a bit of a hypothetical… if safety was not an issue with the split, would this project be happening at all?

Jolene Molitoris: First of all, safety is number one. It has to be. I can’t confirm for you where exactly our leadership’s heads were ten or fifteen years ago when they first started talking about this, but safety is definitely a driver. Remember, the road itself is not a brand new road. A system has to be updated, and there are design criteria for roads and bridges that are different.

What I hope you’ve seen personally since you have attended public meetings, is that the tenure and the focus has dramatically changed. Safety will always be number one, but we recognize that the road was a gash in our neighborhoods here. We feel a commitment to integrating any improvements that we will bring to this project in a way that will enhance connectivity, livability and neighborhood sustainability.

What we want to do is design a new way of looking at transportation. This isn’t about a big department coming in and doing something… it’s about your neighbors. How can we involve the people in a way that creates an outcome that provides as much satisfaction as possible. We have FHWA rules, we have environmental rules, and some other things that are non-negotiable, but our goal is to meet those requirements in a way that creates a win-win situation. I’ve heard people say that win-win is kind of hackneyed, but it will never be hackneyed for me. I don’t know what other terminology you can use that is more clear about your goals. Win for the people of Central Ohio and Columbus, win for the neighborhoods, win for safety, and a win for potential economic development with the highway caps. Those caps are so potentially fabulous. It brings caps to neighborhoods that don’t have strong economic development right now. And it could bring new life.

WE: Many people point to the I-670 cap as a shining example of successfully stitching neighborhoods back together. Still, there seems to be a lot of concern out there because the plan only calls for only two guaranteed caps for the Split-Fix at Spring Street and Long Street and the rest are up in the air right now, correct?

JM: Well, remember what these caps are. Hardly any of this is “guaranteed” anyway. We have to come together as Central Ohioans who will not rest until we get the best for our state and our town and our people. The reason 670 worked so well is because the private sector got involved. We can’t guarantee that. We need to engage, involve, motivate, and stimulate the process of understanding the potential for the city and for the private sector with what you see over on the 670 cap. I mean, look at what’s happened to the Short North. It’s unbelievable. It’s burgeoning. It’s got a life, energy. A lot of it is hard work of small business owners, restaurants, and galleries. But many of them had a chance because of the cap. We think the same kind of chance can come to other neighborhoods. First of all, we have to build the design so that it is strong enough for a cap. You don’t have the same level of strength for something that is not going to be a cap. So we have to be sure that that foundation is laid. And that requires some more investment, but I think it’s wise investment. It’s investment focused on economic development.

WE: I was recently sent a copy of MORPC’s regional data set from 2004 that was compiled with some data from as early as 2000 (Click here to view “Downtown-Columbus-Land-Use-Forecast-Assumptions.doc”) which was used to make projections for the Split Fix project, and some things in that document stand out as being out of date. The data set projects that we’ll have an additional anchor store at the City Center Mall and that Lazarus will still be in business. Of course, today all 1.3 million square feet of the mall is completely gone. The data set also assumes that the Downtown population will quadruple between 2000 to 2030 which doesn’t take into consideration the housing market collapse and financial issues that have have slowed that growth. The data set also says that we will have a significant new residential development on the land west of the Arena District, which has changed hands and is now owned by Penn National Gaming as the former casino site.

JM: But the casino’s not going to be there. That lands for sale, isn’t it?

WE: That’s what I’ve heard, but I don’t know if there are any potential buyers or what possible plans for it are at this time. I don’t know if it’s safe to assume that it will find another residential developer with the same original intent or if it will continue to sit vacant in Penn National’s ownership for another decade. So my question is this… with newer 2008 data available from MORPC that is much different from the information that was compiled starting in 2000, do you think that moving forward with the Split-Fix in the exact same fashion is still viable, or do we need to make adjustments based on the variations that have happened in the past five or six years?

JM: First of all, no data set ever remains perfect. It’s like any corporate or strategic plan, you do your best and then you adjust as you go along. In the last year and a quarter, District 6 and I have been working closely along with Steve Campbell, our Chief of Staff and our Chief Engineer, Keith Sweringen. We looked at this whole project and we started at a pretty basic level.

First of all, consider the magnitude of this. The $1.7 billion price tag was mentioned the other day. We believe those dollars may ever be available at that level. So what we believe is that we have to work faster and we have to work smarter. What investments can we make to evolve the road and improve the road and its environments and its impacts in a way that gets you the benefits that were looked for, safety benefits, congestion mitigation, and all of those things. So we’re going to do this first half billion dollar phase, and then we’re going to see how it works. What benefits will we get from this investment, and how much will be mitigated. We need to see it working and then make decisions about the next steps. So I don’t think at all that what is being proposed is exactly like the original proposal. The environmental document is what people use and that document certainly predates the Strickland administration.

And to me, albeit the said demise of City Center, when I go Downtown and see all of the residential development, I’m amazed at what has been accomplished in this time of economic stress. I think that continued development is phenomenal.

WE: I believe that we’ve grown the Downtown population from 3500 to 5500 residents in the past 10 years, but due to the national housing marketing problems, we’ve fallen short of the 10,000 goal.

JM: I think it is still remarkable. It is changing the face of Downtown, and the feel of it. People are really enjoying it.

WE: This actually leads into my next question… A lot of that Downtown development has been directly and positively impacted by the public investment that has converted several of our one-way auto-friendly streets into two-way pedestrian and bike friendly streets. The main examples being Gay Street, Front Street, and Civic Center Drive, which is under construction right now. The “Split Fix” project adds two new one-way highway feeder streets, and I’m wondering if the two-way treatment is in order for our old Downtown feeder streets… Third, Fourth, Spring and Long. Traffic levels are likely to be much lower on those streets after the reconfiguration with the “Split Fix”. Has anyone at ODOT given any thought as to what their role would be in helping the City of Columbus to convert those streets back into their original two-way “urban friendly” status?

JM: This project is certainly a partnership. I just met with the Mayor the other day. We’re very focused on working with the cities and Mayors all over Ohio as well as the planning agencies like MORPC. So I think how our systems realign can’t be just related to the evolution of the road. I call the “Spit Fix” the “Evolution of 70/71”. Because a fix sounds to me too much like a band-aid. We’re hoping this will be a cultural change, much broader than just a fix. We want to take a wholistic approach as opposed to a band-aid. I think the issue of how transit, how light rail, how the 3C all implicate this, is really important. So that conversation will be ongoing.

Tom Wester, who is our District Deputy in District 6, used to be at the city. Our chief of staff Steve Campbell was at the city. Mark Kelsey, who used to be here at ODOT, is now at the city. So there are strong commitments among the professionals to make sure we communicate things correctly. This isn’t about a knee-jerk reaction. It requires a very thoughtful ongoing discussion and proper decision making until the very first part of the project is complete. There’s no silver bullet for this. I think we are committed to a living process. This isn’t something that is black or white. It is something that requires an ongoing conversation. Cities change. People’s lives change. Priorities change. Things like the City Center change. Everything is going to have an impact.

Right now we have a process called the Ohio’s Transportation Future’s Plan. It should be complete at the end of the year. The outcome will be our policy and investment strategy and will lay out the criteria that is going to drive our investments. When you don’t have enough money to do everything, you have to make decisions. And if you look at not only the Future’s Plan but the TRAC, Transportation Review Advisory Committee, it advised the department and the state on investments over $5M. The Split’s on their list. Their criteria was dramatically altered in December 2008 where economic development, environmental, impact on cities, those things were raised so that the conversation is about how we do business today, not twenty years ago.

More ongoing information about the Interstate 70/71 Split Fix Project can be found online at dot.state.oh.us/projects/7071.

Part One of this interview which focuses on the 3C Corridor Passenger Rail System can be found by CLICKING HERE.

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