By Craig Garretson, Post staff reporter
Two more tractor-trailer rigs overturned at the Lytle Tunnel this week, raising once again the question: Why wasn't the 22-year-old tunnel redesigned along with Fort Washington Way two years ago so that it could handle trucks going 55 mph?
Because, say state highway officials, that would have added at least $100 million to the $313-million project — and taken away the prime riverfront real estate now used for Great American Ball Park.
Lengthening the tunnel now would be so expensive and disruptive that it's simply not an option, officials say.
"We would be looking at an extremely, extremely high cost because rebuilding the tunnel would not only impact the highway but the buildings that are there and the stadiums on the riverfront," said Joe Bassil, the Ohio Department of Transportation's district traffic engineer for the area. "You probably couldn't do it with the Reds' new stadium.— There's not a lot of room left."
That leaves ODOT with a list of solutions that would cost far less, all tied into the straightforward strategy of getting trucks to slow down and abide by the tunnel's 40 mph speed limit for trucks. The ideas include:
New rumble strips, cut deep into the pavement to jolt drivers with noise and vibration.
An elevated bank at the tunnel's south end to help truckers cope with the curve as they exit the tunnel.
An automated message — already in use and soon to be expanded — alerting truckers via CB to slow down as they exit the tunnel.
Electronic monitoring devices to warn motorists of their speed as they enter the tunnel.
Not on the table, at least for now: Banning trucks from Fort Washington Way and rerouting them around Interstate 275 as trucks carrying hazardous material are now. Such a restriction also would require federal approval.
Fort Washington has averaged a truck accident a month — 22 in the 20 months since the redesigned Fort Washington Way reopened in January, 2001, according to records kept by ARTIMIS, Greater Cincinnati's traffic management and information system. A little more than half of those accidents, 14, have occurred on the southbound side, usually as trucks exit the Lytle Tunnel.
Although no one has been seriously injured, the 22 truck accidents have caused more than 97 hours of delays, costing about $181,686, according to ARTIMIS estimates. About 100,000 cars and 20,000 trucks a day use Fort Washington Way, which connects Interstates 71 and 75 and U.S. 50.
"Speed is the culprit," said Bassil. "The solution, we still believe, is to educate truckers that they really do need to slow down and observe the speed limit that is posted."
Although the speed limit for Fort Washington Way is 55 mph, trucks are advised to slow down to 40 mph as they head through the tunnel.
Don Gindling, the city's project/construction manager for the Fort Washington Way project, said the redesigned highway might be working too well. Traffic once slowed to a crawl because of congestion and confusion as drivers made their way through the maze of interstates, streets and off-ramps that made up the old Fort Washington Way, but now I-71 traffic often flows unhindered through the 1.5-mile stretch, and many truckers try to take on the tunnel at full highway speed.
The Fort Washington Way redesign didn't change the layout of the Lytle Tunnel, leaving a 6-degree curve through it — meaning the road curves 6 degrees every hundred feet. As southbound trucks exit the tunnel, many speed up, thinking the worst is behind them.
That, though, is where the bend sharpens to 8 degrees, Bassil said.
"An 8-degree curve is very safe at 40 miles an hour," Bassil said, "but it's not safe at faster speeds if you have an unbalanced load."
The drivers of both trucks that turned over Thursday lost control as they attempted to negotiate that final curve coming out of the south end of the Lytle Tunnel.
The first accident happened just after 1 p.m., when Robert Wheeler, 53, of Metropolis, Ill., lost control of his beer truck, which he said was going 36 mph. The truck tipped and landed on its left side, coming to a rest against the highway's center barrier, blocking the high-speed lane and left shoulder and scattering beer bottles and cans across the highway.
The interstate remained open, but traffic was snarled for hours and U.S. 50 traffic was diverted onto Third Street until the accident was cleaned up. Wheeler, who was freed by Cincinnati firefighters after being trapped in the overturned truck, was treated and released from University Hospital on Thursday.
About eight hours after Wheeler's wreck, Joseph White, 33, of Clinton, Tenn., turned his tractor-trailer over onto its left side, losing a 40,000-pound roll of steel, and again closing U.S. 50 for several hours. The roll of steel punched a hole into the I-71 overpass, showering Third Street below with concrete, then rolled into a retaining wall on the right side of the roadway, causing damage to that structure. White was treated for minor injuries at University Hospital.
Cincinnati Police Lt. Kurt Byrd said the city is putting additional officers on I-71 to step up enforcement efforts. Both drivers involved in Thursday's crashes were cited, and truckers involved in previous accidents have been cited for violations ranging from shifting loads to speeding to reckless operation.
"It appears to us that the problem isn't the tunnel, but the trucks," Byrd said. "It's a combination of excessive speed and a load that isn't quite secure.— It's going to take some innovative ideas and thinking outside the box to come up with a way to stop these tractor-trailers from moving too fast."
Bassil said one relatively minor fix would be a "super-elevated" or slightly banked curve, giving truckers a little margin for error if they hit the curve moving too quickly. That improvement is still under consideration, he said.
Truckers are already warned to slow down with 12-by-14-foot yellow caution signs and flashing beacons, but not everyone is paying attention. Adding additional signs would probably not do any good, Bassil said; there already are so many signs on Fort Washington Way that more could cause truckers "information overload."
Bassil would rather use "non-visual" warnings — such as new, louder rumble strips, and the Wizard CB Alert System, which was installed last month. The Wizard broadcasts a message warning truckers to slow down to 40 mph as they exit the Lytle Tunnel. Currently, the Wizard only broadcasts to southbound truckers on I-71, reaching about a mile north of the tunnel. Bassil said a second transmitter would soon be installed to alert northbound truckers.
The system doesn't work if truckers have their CBs turned off, though, as was the case with at least one of the trucks Thursday.
Adding the new rumble strips and the banked curve would cost about $10,000, and the tunnel would likely have to be closed for several days, said ODOT's Patton. The work could be done in conjunction with a scheduled weekend closure for maintenance, she said. "These are both quick solutions that can be implemented relatively quickly, but not at a high cost."
There already are temporary rumble strips in the tunnel, but these would be more attention-getting: long grooves cut directly into the pavement to produce a loud buzzing sound and vibrations as tires pass over them. Bassil said this type of rumble strip wasn't used before because of the concern that neighbors would complain about the noise.