From trade corridor to dead end

From trade corridor to
dead end

at a glance

This article looks at an interstate highway project that, if completed, will more tightly link the Midwest with the Southeast.

Some areas in the Southeast U.S. are enthusiastic about a high-priority corridor project that would link the region to the Great Lakes and Midwest, but local opposition and a lack of funding may have killed the Midwest portion of the project.

Identifying its ports as the economic engines of the region, the state of North Carolina has completed portions of the I-73/74 corridor that would run from its ports to a Canadian border crossing at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Local attitudes in the Midwest and questions over funding for major highway construction necessitated by the project have put much of that end of the project in limbo.

Of 44 high-priority corridors authorized by various transportation acts between 1991 and 1998, the Interstate 73/74 Great Lakes/Mid-Atlantic Corridor could be one of the most controversial. The corridor would cross parts of Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, linking the Midwest and East Coast.

Identified as Corridor 5, it is one of only five corridors written into the legislation as potential new interstate highways. The U.S. Congress has found construction of the interstate highway system has greatly enhanced economic growth, but it also found many regions of the U.S. were not adequately served by interstate or comparable highways, according to an I-73 corridor study developed for Michigan's portion of the highway. Certain highway corridors were identified as having “national significance,” including Corridor 5 (the Great Lakes/Mid-Atlantic corridor). However, the project has faced stiff opposition in many quarters throughout Michigan and Ohio, which has largely halted progress on the highway.

Though the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) identified the need for a central-Michigan highway as early as May 1970, funding issues stopped MDOT in its tracks part way through its feasibility study. In 2001, MDOT had completed an 18-month feasibility study but announced it would not proceed with the environmental clearance phase of the study. At that time, it said it would use the $2.9 million remaining from the study for safety improvements along the US 127 corridor (which would have been designated part of the I-73 corridor).

According to MDOT, the decision to suspend the study was partly due to the fact it would be “many years before a project like I-73 would successfully compete for funding to advance past the environmental stage.”

Michigan's long-range plan, completed in 1994, documented congestion projections under a do-nothing scenario would put the greatest pressure on the US 127 and US 223 area of southeast Michigan that would be the corridor's link from Adrian, Mich., to Toledo, Ohio. This would be the most heavily used segment of the new route, said an MDOT-sponsored study of the area. Had it been built, drivers would have been diverted from less attractive travel paths to the I-73 corridor road, according to simulations. This would have led to a projected 25,000 to 30,000 vehicles using the segment each day — 40% to 75% over what would be carried in 2020 if the road was not upgraded.

MDOT currently shows no sites along the corridor under construction.

The situation in Ohio looked more optimistic in the mid-1990s after then-Governor George Voinovich approved expanding the Ohio Turnpike Commission's authority to allow it to fund other highway projects. The move stirred questions and controversy because the Commission would have established the I-73 corridor as a toll road.

The Turnpike Commission proposal was a mixed blessing. While the toll proposal would have ensured funding, there were questions about the Commission exceeding its mandate to operate the Ohio Turnpike. The matter evaporated amid a greater controversy when the Turnpike Commission announced massive toll increases to fund Turnpike construction and replacement of service plazas along the length of the toll road.

This was followed by localized but very vocal opposition to construction of the new highway.

West Virginia has constructed portions of highways and interchanges that would facilitate I-73/74 development. The state has continued development of the King Coal Highway, which runs east and west along the southern border of the state. But this road is not likely to become an alternative route for the I-73/74 corridor.

“Smart Road” references abound in Virginia's discussion of the Corridor. Plans to incorporate intelligent transportation system technologies along portions of the Corridor in Virginia aren't expected to yield results until about 2020.

After four years of intensive environmental study, Virginia's Department of Transportation (VDOT) studied 13 corridors before it offered alternatives that include no road construction at all, spot improvements, or building the new interstate highway. Based on public support and a feasibility study, Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board selected a route that extends south to the North Carolina line. It was estimated the 66.5 miles of the I-73 corridor running through Virginia would cost $1.23 billion.

In the end, the Eastern Seaboard states appear to see value in constructing or upgrading roads to form the Midwest/Mid-Atlantic corridor. Where resistance has stopped development, some more circuitous routes are available (via interstate highways) to complete the connection.

However, given the changes in hours of service regulations, high fuel prices and high service demands, the failure to complete the corridor could have a serious impact on the economic development of the areas where the highway was not approved or developed. LT

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May, 2004

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