Austin Boulevard traffic problems preventable, officials say

Less than two years since construction, the “continuous-flow” intersection already surpasses levels not expected for 20 years — even though development around the interchange has just begun.

Ohio Department of Transportation officials are looking at improvements, but not adding the two legs. “We are looking at alternate improvements that would be less impactful, yet provide the same level of improvement to the high-traffic volume areas,” Mandi Abner, spokeswoman for ODOT’s District 7 said in a Tuesday email.

A Dayton Daily News investigation found that building half of the intersection saved an estimated $3 million-plus and preserved land for developer RG Properties around the Interstate 75 interchange.

Last week, RG President Randy Gunlock said the company was simply protecting its interest at the time, believing the state would never need the land. RG will sell the land at no profit, Gunlock said.

“If in fact the state wants to build it now, no harm, no foul,” he said, minimizing the effect a 2006 letter by his brother may have had on the decision.

“We had nothing to do with and couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with what was going to get built,” he said.

Intersecting problems

Typically, continuous-flow intersections include special “indirect” left-turning lanes designed to improve traffic flow in all four directions. Completing such a design requires more land and money for construction.

State engineers are studying work by consultants hired to suggest improvements of the $43.9 million interchange and road network.

“At this point we are still in the process of finalizing any decisions. We want to be sure that we are taking into account all factors both current and future to make sure any adjustments will accommodate growth,” Abner said.

While not in the immediate plans for the intersection, Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner said, “there was always a possibility a four-legged would be done in the future if that became necessary.”

The decision

The debate about whether to build all four legs of the special intersection vs. the two that ended up being built continued for at least three years, according to records obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

In a 2006 email to ODOT, an engineer for ABMB, a Louisiana company regarded as an expert on continuous-flow intersections, projected motorists would encounter less than a 30-second delay at the two-legged design at Austin under normal traffic conditions through 2035. Cutting the traffic legs from four to two would save $3.3 million in construction costs.

In the 2006 letter also obtained through a public records request, developer RG Properties, before buying 142 acres now known as Austin Landing, urged the state not to buy the right of way for the north-south legs.

In the letter, copied to two local lawmakers, then state Sen. Jeff Jacobson and then-Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted, Glen “Bo” Gunlock of RG Properties said the state would be blocking the company from developing the land, although it was unlikely the north-south legs would ever be needed.

RG already owned more than 50 acres on the south side of Austin, just east of the interchange. Property records show RG, through several limited partnerships, took ownership of the 142 acres, now known as Austin Landing, on Dec. 22, 2006.

Publicly, state and local officials continued to debate whether to take on the added expense in 2006 and 2007.

However, a series of emails between the state and LJB Inc., the firm hired to complete the final design, showed engineers continued to consider building all four legs of the intersection as late as April 2009.

“See the two attached spreadsheets for the costs necessary to construct the four-leg CFI,” LJB Engineer Matt Gardner said in the email, involving analysis of the use of federal stimulus funding.

Ultimately, the state decided to devote $2 million in stimulus funding to the two-legged design, rather than fund the full intersection. The interchange opened in July 2010.

While money was an issue, the decision was complex, officials said.

“There’s always funding issues,” said Dirk Gross, administrator for roadway planning at ODOT. “There’s never enough money to build everything everyone wants to build.”

Also taken into account were the projections indicating minimal problems during normal traffic periods, through 2035.

“In our evaluation, the two-leg version worked,” Gross said. “Now ... the four-leg version worked better.”

In February 2007, then-Gov. Ted Strickland raised questions about whether there was enough state and federal funding to pay for the interchange and other projects around the state.

Citing the traffic projections and the state’s funding woes, RG’s 2006 letter said it was unlikely ODOT would ever complete the other two legs.

“Finally, the damages to our remaining property that would be incurred as a result of the taking of right of way for this north-south leg would be devastating,” Bo Gunlock said. RG would lose visibility and access points as well as land, he added.

Last week his brother, RG President Randy Gunlock, said the company is intent on doing what’s best for the community and its economy.’

“We have a tremendous opportunity at Austin Landing to make a huge difference,” he said.

Gunlock suggested the state could solve the traffic problems without completing the north-south legs. Adding another lane for northbound drivers on Ohio 741 turning left onto Austin could ease the tie-ups, he said.

“I have a lot of faith in ODOT’s engineers, that they’ll figure this out. And when they do, we’ll certainly be cooperative,” Gunlock said.

By August 2013, a village, featuring restaurants, retail and a 14-screen cinema is expected to open at Austin Landing, just north of the intersection, joining Kroger and Kohl’s stores and three office buildings.

Other stores and hotels, as well as two parking garages, are to be in place, worrying some who use the intersection about future traffic problems.

“When it gets well developed, that traffic’s going to come pouring out of that extra exit that’s on Austin and mess up the CFI even more than it is now,” said David Vomacka, 1st Ward councilman in Springboro.

Vomacka, a traffic planning engineer who regularly uses the interchange, said the north-south legs are needed now.

“There’s other patchwork. There’s no other solution,” Vomacka said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2261 or lbudd@Dayton DailyNews.com.

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