In July 2021, the US state of Ohio’s Department of Transportation (ODoT), together with state capital, the city of Columbus, won $40 million in the US Department of Transportation (USDoT)’s FY2021, $905.25 million awards round under its rolling Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (Infra) discretionary grant programme. Launched in 2017, this allocates dedicated funding to tackle key trouble spots in US transport infrastructure.
Selection criteria included well-supported evidence of resulting improvements to local economies and job creation, roles for innovative technology, and cost-effective delivery. Demand far exceeded available funding.
The boost for Ohio, whose primary source of transportation funding is fuel tax revenue, is the go-ahead for the fourth tranche of its $1.3bn multiphase Columbus Crossroads project. Earlier phases had delivered much-needed repairs to two US interstate highways, I70 and I71. These cross the city centre, merging their routes in the Columbus Overlap, south of the centre, which has long been notorious for delays and hazards.
Although it accounts for only 6% of the Columbus area freeway system, this area experiences 25% of all crashes, resulting from congestion, closely-spaced interchanges and city street access ramps, and lane weaving. Drivers on I71 have to cross lines of traffic to continue their journeys north or south through the downtown area.
The Overlap’s strategic importance stems from its lying at the heart of both freight and commuter traffic flows through the central area of the state, and it had been experiencing growing levels of severe congestion. It also functions as the southern leg of the Columbus Innerbelt which runs around the city’s downtown area - the largest centre of employment in the region.
Ohioans need to use it to commute to - or through - the city centre for their work, healthcare or entertainment, competing with externally-generated freight and personal traffic flows. Not least important, the Overlap also lies at the core of key regional and local growth areas.
Central Ohio has grown significantly in recent years, and population estimates for the Columbus eight-county metropolitan statistical area (MSA), across three of which Columbus spreads, are rising. Apart from congestion, the Overlap has been consistently performing badly in areas such as bottleneck incidence, road safety overall, traffic volume per lane, incident clearance rates and numbers of secondary crashes. Not least, it has been rated as the third-worst freeway segment in the state for travel time
In a national context, it lies at the epicentre of US national freight movements between the East Coast and the Midwest. The city itself lies directly between national industrial manufacturing hubs such as Cleveland (Ohio) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), and distribution centres such as Louisville (Kentucky) and Chicago (Illinois).
In terms of throughput, the Overlap had routinely been exceeding its design capacity by 50,000 vehicles per day, making it one of the top congestion hotspots in the state. Again, it is one of Ohio’s most hazardous locations, with a daily load of 145,169 vehicles (18,194 of them trucks).
Key elements of the current phase include replacements of bridges, some dating back to 1963, which are expected to save millions of dollars in network preservation costs. To qualify for the funding, ODoT had to demonstrate its plan’s ability to deliver substantial cost and safety benefits in terms of freight traffic movements through the city, using innovative technology and establishing cost-effectiveness criteria. To achieve the necessary quality of input, it deployed an array of advanced traffic measurement metrics developed by StreetLight Data.
The company, based in San Francisco, specialises in boosting geographic traffic coverage by tapping into location-based sources such as smartphones.
The addition of available analytics capabilities was specifically intended to enable the agency more accurately to calculate and report on the impact of its transportation investments. These combined resources proved crucial in securing the new Infra funding necessary to complete the elements of phase four in rapid succession, as originally envisaged, and so deliver the expected benefits as soon as possible.
Key to the bid was ODoT’s ability to obtain and deliver reliable data on, for example, relevant freight movements and infrastructural pressures. ODoT planners were able to capture a detailed visualisation of trips that extended up to 800km (500 miles) from the urban core of the project area.
This enabled them, among other things, to meet a specific Infra requirement for evidence of rural benefits – for example, to people living outside the conurbation and needing to travel for advanced medical care in the city.
For the bidding process, StreetLight Data’s input was able to confirm that ODoT’s project focus was correct, and to quantify the effects that the proposed improvements would have on traffic movements in the city, across the region and along the US national freight network.
Specifically, the resulting solution made it possible to isolate commercial truck movements from personal travel; and to identify start and end points for trips made by the former through the Overlap. The resulting analysis showed that nearly 30% of truck trips were of over 80km (50+ miles) with 16% extending over 160km (100+ miles).
The ‘wow’ factor
“We knew already that vast amounts of truck traffic moved daily through the corridor,” commented City of Columbus management analyst Timothy Nittle. “But the detailed results created a ‘wow’ factor that impressed both ODoT planners and USDoT grant officials”.
Importantly, because ODOT has ongoing access to the metrics, it can now measure the impacts on traffic during the project, and so optimise the planning and use of detour routes. It can also analyse traffic conditions following deployment of the improvements, to enable it to measure and report accurately on the effects of the resulting changes.
As StreetLight senior vice president Martin Morzynski told ITS International: “The metrics that Ohio used confirmed that their project focus was correct, and quantified the effects that improvements would have on traffic in the city, in the region, and on the national freight network”.
As a highlighted best-value design-build project, the initial phase of the Columbus project, authorised in 2010, was noted by the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) as having started 2.5 years earlier than, and cost $40 million less than, it would by conventional project delivery.
Looking ahead to the current scheme, DBIA spokesperson Kim Wright told ITS International: “The use of ITS and other innovations allows collaborative design-build teams to deliver maximum long-term value.”
The institute has now created a new award recognising the use of such technologies to maximise project collaboration. It expects the highway sector to account for the highest percentage (16%) of US design-build construction spend over the period 2021-2025.