Austin Boulevard traffic exceeds 2035 forecast

Published: Sunday, February 26, 2012 @ 10:31 PM
Updated: Sunday, February 26, 2012 @ 10:31 PM

            Ty Greenlees
(Ty Greenlees)

The $43.9 million Austin Boulevard interchange is serving 10,000 more vehicles during peak times than was anticipated for another 20 years.

Less than two years after its opening, the state is paying a Columbus-based consulting firm thousands of dollars to study ways to alleviate the gridlock.

“Nobody thought the traffic would ever reach what was forecast,” said Springboro City Councilman David Vomacka.

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“Certainly the day it was opened, the traffic was there,” said Vomacka, a transportation planning consultant.

The Ohio Department of Transportation retained ME Companies to look for ways to smooth out travel around the interchange — and through “the continuous flow intersection” east of Interstate 75 — after realizing traffic at peak times already exceed projected 2035 traffic levels.

According to recent counts, as many as 10,000 more cars than projected are sharing Ohio 741, heading from the interchange into Springboro, during evening rush hours.

Commuters, local officials and police worry traffic will worsen when Austin Landing and other nearby commercial and residential developments are completed, east and west of I-75, unless millions more are spent on construction fixes.

ME, which was hired Nov. 1, is to be paid about $22,238 from gas allocation tax dollars for a traffic analysis and recommendations that could include construction of a seventh lane — potentially a million-dollar expense, officials said. ODOT had no prediction of when ME’s report was expected.

Drivers expect better planning, not fixes

Transportation officials downplay the traffic count discrepancy, chalking it up to unanticipated growth and the inexact nature of traffic projections. Motorists suspect poor planning and worry the worst is yet to come.

“Imagine what this interchange will be like in 15 years after the area is more fully developed ... . Existing roads — many of which are already a hodgepodge of corrections — and new ‘fixes’ will only complicate the convoluted traffic design,” Sue Shay of Centerville said in an email.

Last year, Miami Twp. police reported 18 crashes at the Austin-Ohio 741 intersection and 25 crashes at I-75 and Austin. Despite new signs and other changes, the area requires heightened police attention, Major John DiPietro said.

Some people point to the fact that traffic projections used in the design were completed about a decade ago, in 2003 — five years before construction began.

Transportation officials say such a gap between traffic projections and construction is common.

“If you kept updating traffic you potentially would never complete the design,” said Paul Gruner, appointed Montgomery County engineer in July 2011 after the retirement of Joe Litvin.

Instead officials pointed to the opening of Motoman, west of the interchange, and office buildings and a Kohl’s department store on the east side, as signs that development is ahead of schedule and a partial explanation for the intermittent gridlock.

Traffic projections from 2003 study

The traffic projections used in the design were part of a justification study by Wilbur Smith Associates, a global consulting firm, dated April 17, 2003.

“Wilbur Smith is one of the premier modeling firms in the country,” said Gruner. “Nobody’s perfect at it.”

Officials with the consulting firm, which merged last year with CDM to form CDM Smith, referred questions about the Austin study to Randy Chevalley, deputy director in ODOT’s District 7.

“He is the most appropriate source for answering your questions and explaining how access justification studies are conducted in accordance with Federal Highway Administration guidelines and state DOT criteria, as well as the involvement of the Metropolitan Planning Association,” company spokesperson Marlene Hobel said last week in an email. “He is familiar with the rigorous and standard process set by FHA and ODOT for traffic projects to justify interchange access.”

Craig Eley, traffic engineer for ODOT District 7, said population projections — as well as gap between completion of the study and start of construction — are factored into models used to develop traffic projections.

Once a design is selected, traffic projections lose significance, Eley added.

ODOT referred questions about the decision to use the 2003 traffic study to Gruner, who said a five-year gap is “not too unusual a timeframe for how these projects develop.”

Deadlines for use of federal funds, along with other factors including local anxiety about getting such long-awaited projects started, come into play, officials said.

“The long project development process is something we all complain about,” Gruner said.

Continuous flow intersection confuses

Adding to the intersection’s troubles is the continuous flow intersection. Heralded for its innovative design when it opened, the intersection has proven confusing to motorists.

The continuous flow intersection offers drivers an alternative to traditional turns from Austin to Ohio 741.

At the intersection, lanes curving northwest and southeast on Ohio 741 and Austin are designed to maintain traffic flow. Instead commuters say the turn lanes back up during peak traffic.

The design was selected after engineers rejected traditional intersections with as many as three left-turn lanes, Eley said.

“It was an innovative construction that could move more traffic capacity through the intersection,” he said.

At peak traffic, close to 41,380 vehicles — almost 10,000 more than projected for 2013 — are sharing Ohio 741 southbound, officials said.

“It still remains a very confusing and complex intersection,” DiPietro said, suggesting confusion about the intersection has slowed down some drivers, reducing damage from crashes.

More growth likely to increase traffic woes

During evening rush hour on Wednesday, traffic eastbound on Austin and turning south on Ohio 741 sat through two cycles of lights before making it through the intersection.

Farther east, Austin was backed up about a half-mile west from Yankee Street past Washington Church Road.

Lynn Johnson, a Springboro resident who uses the new roads, watched from the Kohl’s parking lot. Johnson suspects Wilbur Smith failed to account for all the drivers who would abandon routes north toward Dayton Mall for the new interchange.

“We all started going this way the day it opened,” said Johnson, an electrical engineer who has offered ME Companies his plan for synchronizing the lights.

In the next two years at Austin Landing, RG Properties is expected to finish a hotel and a village featuring housing and retail, restaurants, a cinema and a park featuring a skating rink, as well as another department store and office building and several parking garages.

Across Ohio 741, township planners recently approved 43 more two- and three bedroom homes. Across Austin, Mills Development plans a 10-building office complex in Springboro. This is only a fraction of the developments planned or envisioned off the interchange.

Already, ODOT has improved signs and adjusted traffic lights to ease gridlock at the intersection from Springboro to the interchange.

The conclusion of construction around the Ohio 73 also is expected to ease congestion around Austin Boulevard.

ODOT declined to comment on potential changes and costs, pending review of the ME report.

“We could find out it works perfectly, we don’t have to do anything,” ODOT engineer Eley said.