COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In about five years, Columbus drivers may be able to traverse a SmartLane on Interstate 71 — which would be the second of its kind in central Ohio, and the third in the state.

The Ohio Department of Transportation proposed turning a stretch of the current I-71 shoulders into drivable lanes on both sides of the interstate, running from Fifth Avenue to State Route 161. Like what is installed on Interstate 670, those lanes would only be available to drivers when ODOT switches them on, delineated by either red X’s or green arrows on a digitized sign above the highway. 

The estimated cost for the proposed I-71 project is around $90 million, according to ODOT. 

ODOT District 6 spokesperson Brooke Ebersole said the bulk of that money would cover actual construction costs, bridge rehabilitation, and digital and overhead signs for the project. It would also fund an environmental study. 

Success on I-670 leads to proposal for I-71, ODOT says 

The SmartLanes on I-670 — the state’s pilot for the program that opened in fall 2019 — reduced both rush-hour commutes and traffic accidents, Ebersole said. When the SmartLane is in use, which is usually during the evening rush hour, ODOT has observed a 90% downtick in crashes. 

“We just saw a wild success rate with it,” she said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen — so many people said, ‘Thank you so much, this made my commute so much easier, I can know exactly what time I’m going to get home, I don’t miss things anymore.’ And that’s the goal at the end of the day.’”

The state agency, she said, is seeking to make Ohio roads more reliable and safer while simultaneously relieving congestion. The status of a SmartLane is controlled by a person who monitors footage along the corridor to decide whether it needs to be opened or closed to drivers. 

SmartLanes do not require a certain number of people in the car to be used, like HOV lanes, but ODOT does temporarily reduce the speed limit for drivers whenever the lane is in use.

In the future, Ohio drivers may also see SmartLanes popping up elsewhere in the state if the current projects continue to be successful, she said. The only other SmartLane right now, currently under construction, is along Interstate 275 in Cincinnati.

Some critical of SmartLanes ability to address traffic flow

To ODOT, the clear answer to addressing congestion in the stretch of I-71 being eyed — with its wide shoulders — was adding a SmartLane. 

“We looked briefly at widening it, but we didn’t even get as far as putting a dollar amount on it,” Ebersole said. 

But Harvey Miller, an Ohio State University geography professor and the director of its Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, said that increasing roadway volume — even in an only-sometimes fashion — could still lead to an eventual proportional increase in traffic. 

“People have this conception that traffic is like water — that if we just make the pipes bigger, it’s going to flow faster,” Miller said in an interview. “But traffic isn’t like that. Traffic is like gas: It fills all the space you give it.”

Induced traffic demand is “basically settled science,” he said. In the short term, more lanes will mean less traffic. But as people alter their routes based on what is available to them, congestion will eventually return to its original levels.  

By adding a lane even just during morning and evening rushes, Harvey said he believes ODOT will simultaneously encourage more people to drive. Vehicle emissions are one of the largest contributors to lower air quality in Columbus.

“The only way to solve traffic congestion is to give people alternatives to driving,” he said. “We need to see more investment and public transit, we need to see investment in bike infrastructure, we need to see investment in walkability and better sidewalks.”

Ebersole said ODOT, however, is working to take advantage of what infrastructure exists. 

“We are not widening the highway. We are not adding lanes. The highway will still live in its existing footprint. It will not get any bigger,” she said. 

If the I-71 SmartLanes project moves forward under its current state, construction would not start until 2025 and last about three years — into 2028. ODOT will solicit feedback from the public starting at the end of May, including at a meeting on May 25 both virtually and in Linden.