It doesn't take much for rush hour traffic to grind to a halt. A stalled car, an accident or road construction can turn a smooth ride into an excruciating crawl.
It's at times like these that commuters wish they had received a tip to seek an alternate route.
That day is coming.
By next spring, digital screens called Variable Messaging Systems will be stationed at several on-ramps along Interstate 71 to let motorists know how well traffic is flowing along the busy freeway.
If the flow is smooth, the digital display will show the average commuting time. If it is hopelessly congested, the sign will urge motorists to "seek another route."
Through a program called the Columbus Freeway Management System, drivers will receive instant notification from those message displays of roadway tie-ups so they can decide how to best skirt the problem.
A Web site also will provide real-time updates on road conditions and suggestions of alternate routes.
By educating drivers, transportation experts are betting they can reduce congestion and make roads safer.
"Our goal is to improve our existing infrastructure," says Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission Traffic Consultant Chris Hedden. "We can't build our way out of congestion, but we can manage traffic flow by providing you and me, the drivers, with more accurate and timely information about where we're going."
The $56 million program is a cooperative effort among the City of Columbus, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
Other cities, such as Cincinnati, Houston and Washington, D.C., have implemented similar programs in an effort to ease their own traffic woes.
An ongoing study by the U.S. Department of Transportation has shown that other cities with freeway management systems have experienced a 32 percent reduction in congestion and a 37 percent drop in crash rates.
I-71 represents the first of a nine-phase, long-term project to provide instant messaging to every major freeway in the Columbus metropolitan area.
Closed-circuit televisions are already able to cover most of I-71, from Polaris Parkway down to the splits at Interstates 670 and 70.
The city of Columbus has provided office space at 109 N. Front St. for a Traffic Management Center, where a transportation team will monitor the video and relay the information to commuters.
"We will be able to get more information about what's going on out there on the roadways, verify incidents, create quicker response times to those incidents and give the traveling public real-time information about what's going on so they can make instant decisions about their routes," says John Gray, Freeway Management System project manager with the Ohio Department of Transportation.
As part of the Freeway Management System, pace meters embedded in the concrete will measure traffic flow. Based on that information, stop lights at each entrance ramp will regulate the number of cars entering the freeway.
"We're trying to keep the flow on the main line even," Hedden says.
After the I-71 corridor is complete, traffic experts will begin wiring I-270 from the Route 33/161 interchange south to I-70.
Within 10 years, the entire Outerbelt and Routes 670, 315 and 33 will have complete traffic surveillance capability.
Kevin DiCola is a free-lance writer for SBN.
Construction is a fact of life along our jammed freeway system and clogged side roads. But if you think it's bad now, consider the future.
"Congestion is worsening in Central Ohio," says Robert Lawler, transportation consultant with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. "In the long term, we are expecting to be about $1 billion short in our ability to build highways to meet the demand."
Despite an aggressive effort by the Ohio Department of Transportation to upgrade and expand lanes to handle the growth, it won't be enough to help the infrastructure support increasing traffic.
Population growth and increases in drive times will combine to make Central Ohio driving four times worse than today's conditions by the year 2020.
"Congestion along all freeways will be at the level of what I-71 is today, at all hours of the day," Lawler says.
According to its study of Ohio roads, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission predicts the number of commutes residents make will increase by 33 percent, and the length of those trips will rise by 75 percent.
"Development is spreading out into the countrysides surrounding Columbus, and as a result, people are driving longer distances to get to work or other activities," Lawler says.
That translates into a 10 to 12 percent slowdown in vehicle speed, which is a direct indicator of congestion, he says.
These statistics have prompted transportation officials to explore other avenues for handling growth.
"It's only going to get worse unless we change our travel behavior," Lawler says. "If we can reorganize land use, we can make it easier for people to use transit or even walk to work."
One possibility is a light commuter rail system alongside I-71 from Polaris to Downtown Columbus. Rail options are under scrutiny by the Central Ohio Transit Authority, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Burgess & Niple.
"I-71 has always been one of our most heavily traveled corridors," Lawler says. "We're determining what the patronage and the costs might be and whether the community wants to support that solution or not."
The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission is working with the Ohio Department of Transportation, the City of Columbus and other jurisdictions in the development of Intelligent Transportation Systems, a program designed to ensure all planned projects work together.
"ITS is about connecting and working together to break down the institutional barriers to communication," says Chris Hedden, a transportation consultant with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
In the meantime, road construction remains a fact of life.
The following projects are slated to begin within the next three years:
- An upgrade of the state Route 161 and Sunbury Road interchange with lane additions and widening of Route 161 from Sunbury Road eastbound to the New Albany Bypass.
- An upgrade of the Interstate 270 and Route 161 interchange and major widening from Sunbury to Dempsey roads.
- Reconstruction of I-270 from the Obetz corporate line to Parsons Avenue, with pavement renovation, drainage, guardrail upgrades and signage and bridge repairs, including the main road and ramps.
- A study for an interchange upgrade with bridge replacement on state Route 665 at Interstate 71 in Grove City.
- Widening from four to eight lanes of a 0.95-mile stretch of Interstate 670 from Neil Avenue to I-71.
- Reconstruction, along with new connectors and freeway ramps, of I-670 from the Chessie railroad crossing to Neil Avenue.
- Reconstruction of I-71 from the Pickaway County line to a third of a mile south of I-70, including an additional southbound lane between I-270 and Stringtown Road.
- Reconstruction of a 0.6-mile stretch of U.S. 33 in Fairfield County from Waterloo Road to Hill and Diley roads. The project includes combining the Hill and Diley intersections into a full interchange, complete with a lane widening.
- A study and investment analysis of Hoover/Orders roads at I-71 in Grove City, where the Ohio Department of Transportation will consider the potential of building a new interchange and/or bridge widening.
- A study of possible improvements for increased capacity and safety on 9.2 miles of Route 161 from west of the Licking County line up to and including four lanes of state Route 37.
How to reach: Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, 228-2663 or www.morpc.org. To check the status of current construction projects in Central Ohio, including daily updates of road and ramp closings, visit www.pavingtheway.org.
Kevin DiCola is a free-lance writer for SBN.