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Ohio DOT Partners With Kokosing on I-70/I-71 Downtown Ramp Up

by: Larry Bernstein
A crew for Kokosing lays a section of pipe during the current phase of the I-70/I-71 Downtown Ramp Up in Columbus, Ohio.
A crew for Kokosing lays a section of pipe during the current phase of the I-70/I-71 Downtown Ramp Up in Columbus, Ohio.
The Columbus, Ohio, region is experiencing significant population growth. Last year’s census found that Columbus was the fastest-growing metropolitan in the Midwest. When areas experience population growth, infrastructure must keep up to enable safe and reliable travel. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is working on a massive project – the I-70/I-71 Downtown Ramp Up – to keep the traffic flowing in the area.
Safety First
The Downtown Ramp Up is a series of projects. The aim is to reconstruct Interstates 70 and 71 in downtown Columbus and alleviate the biggest safety and congestion problems along the corridor.

The projects were undertaken due to high crash rates and heavy congestion into and out of downtown Columbus. The project area, which has an average daily traffic count of 140,000 vehicles, averages 900 crashes per year and includes three of the top 10 highest crash locations in the state.

Before work began on the first phase, there were 44 ramps along the 3.5-mile project route. Upon completion of the final phase of the project, there will be just eight. This, along with adding a lane in each direction on I-70/I-71, is expected to minimize congestion and weaving and result in enhanced safety. Currently, the project area experiences many congestion backups.

“The goal is to make it safer for traffic to move through the area and not have to move across lanes of traffic,” says Ian Downing, a Project Engineer with ODOT, who part of the team managing day-to-day operations.

Two for One
The project kicked off in this past spring and is expected to run through fall 2025. The current construction work includes two phases – 4R and 6R. Originally designed as two phases, 4R and 6R were combined since the former was delayed due to COVID-19.

As part of the current phase, six ramps are being worked on. Other project elements include widening a bridge, replacing a bridge, reconstructing roads, and converting a street to accept two-way traffic. The team is also building a nearly mile-long bridge to connect the existing interstate and carry traffic over the interchange. These last few elements relate to another aim of the project, which is reconnecting neighborhoods that were cut off because of previous construction. This effort includes replacing bridges with wider, pedestrian-friendly structures.

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Lastly, there’s a good deal of utility relocation, lighting, and other work that's common on highway projects that are part of the scope.

A Challenging Package
Everyone loves a two-for-one when it’s time to buy something. However, rolling two infrastructure projects into one along a highway can make for some challenging conditions.

Each phase originally had its own plans and start and completion dates. There was supposed to be a six-month lag. Making it one has led to challenges, including some related to scheduling.

“We tried to make it a bit staggered, but there have been some challenges with the sequencing of the work,” says Scott Overmier with the general contractor, Kokosing. Overmier is on the project full time and is focused on ensuring the project is on schedule and budget.

“Traffic maintenance, getting materials and equipment to and from the site, and giving crews a sufficient amount of workspace has been a challenge,” says Breanna Badanes, Regional Public Information Officer for ODOT. “This is no surprise given the small work area and working in the vicinity of a downtown urban core.”

Another challenge, according to Downing, is dealing with a higher than usual number of key stakeholders. They include two railroads – CSX and Northfolk Southern; the state, city, and county; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – they control the area around the Scioto River; and several telecom companies, including AT&T and Verizon.

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Although the current project is in the early stages, Overmier is already seeing long lead times for materials. “We haven’t hit any major delays yet supply issues, but we could get to a point where we get behind and have to figure it out. For now, we have found solutions to keep the work progressing.”

Change is Coming
The entire Downtown Ramp Up program has a $1.4 billion price tag. The budget for the current phases is $280 million. The federal government is paying 40 percent, 55 percent is being funded by the state, Columbus is contributing 3 percent, and the Mid-Ohio regional planning commission is contributing the rest.

Early on, the project is on budget. However, “there is the potential for many change orders due to items going up and issues with combining two plans sets,” Downing says.

Ultimately, Downing expects to keep the project on budget. Overmier believes savings may be found by completing portions of work out of phase leading to a savings on schedule and minimizing the amount of time traffic will be impacted.

Kokosing, an experienced contractor, has completed many projects for ODOT. The local contractor is a major player and worked on the other nearby phases. “They have the resources to mobilize for projects of this magnitude,” Downing says.

Upon completion of the current phase and the full I-70/I-71 Downtown Ramp Up project, there will be new urban avenues with complete streets, enhanced freeway crossings with safe pedestrian and bicyclist accommodations, and the removal of unsafe ramps. There will be improved safety and better traffic through the downtown corridor for local and freight traffic. The expanding population of the Columbus area will have better mobility.

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