70 mph limits urged for more Ohio highways

Amendment in budget billcovers ‘interstate lookalikes’


COLUMBUS — Ohio’s 70 mph speed limit may not be just for interstates with a capital “I” anymore.

An amendment to the $61.7 billion, two-year budget bill passed last week by the Senate might open the door for the higher speed limit on other divided highways in northwest Ohio.

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, portions of U.S. 24 west of Waterville to the Indiana line, U.S. 23 from I-475 to the Michigan line, and even State Rt. 2 east of Camp Perry to Erie County generally fit the four-lane, divided-highway description in the bill. It would be left up to ODOT to decide which could handle the faster speed.

The Senate said it never meant, when it voted in March to raise the speed limit effective July 1 on rural “interstates,” to restrict that only to highways that are part of the federal interstate system. So the chamber added the budget amendment to allow higher speeds on roads that have generally come to be called “interstate-lookalikes.”

“I think the Senate’s view of ‘interstate’ was four-lane divided highways…,” said Senate President Keith Faber recently. “If you can tell me what the difference is between U.S. 30 running across the state and I-75 running across the state, it’s arguably better to drive 70 [mph] on U.S. 30 cause it’s less congested.… I don’t know of anybody who thought that, originally when we did this, that U.S. 30 wasn’t included.”

A joint House-Senate conference committee could meet as early as this week to begin working out a compromise between differing versions of the budget passed by the two chambers. It remains to be seen whether the higher, interstate-with-a-small-“i” language will make it to the governor’s desk in its current form.

Ric Oxender, lobbyist for Ohio Conference of AAA Clubs, said he would have preferred more debate.

“As I understand it, it leaves it up to [the Ohio Department of Transportation] to decide which of the noninterstate highways would be able to increase to 70,” he said. “I hope they would look at engineering studies and the composition of the road — what it’s made of, how old it is, how much weight it can handle — before they increase it.

“There are sections of Route 30 and Route 23 where there are crossroads,” Mr. Oxender said. “Traffic studies are extremely important. There are rural vehicles like tractors and farm equipment on some of these highways.”

ODOT has already designated 570 miles out of 1,332 miles of freeways where the speed limit will increase from 65 mph to 70 mph on July 1, sticking strictly to rural sections of federally recognized interstates like I-75.

Rural stretches of highway will go from 65 mph to 70 mph, while sections running through congested areas will keep lower speed limits. For instance, I-75 will be 70 mph just south of Toledo to Dayton’s northern fringe, with exceptions for sections running through Findlay and Lima.

“The legislation said nonurbanized area of Ohio interstate,” ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said. “We used U.S. Census data to identify what nonurbanized means.

“For instance, I-75 through Findlay, under a strict interpretation of that language, the speed limit would go up and down multiple times in a very short period,” he said. “We looked at the amount of traffic. We looked at the proximity of one interchange to another and made the determination that I-75 would stay at 65 [through the Findlay area].”

The two-year budget containing the less restrictive language is expected to reach Gov. John Kasich’s desk by the end of the month. Assuming the speed-limit language survives, it’s unclear when decisions will be made as to which noninterstate four-lane highways will get higher limits.

The portion of other formal interstates where speed limits are to rise to 70 mph on July 1 are:

●I-70 across the state except for the Dayton, Columbus, and Zanesville areas.

●I-71 south of the Cuyahoga-Medina county line to the Little Miami River near Fort Ancient in southwest Ohio, with the exception of the Columbus area.

●I-76 east of Akron to just west of Youngstown.

●I-77 south of Canton to West Virginia.

●I-90 outside of Cleveland northeast to Pennsylvania.

The Ohio Turnpike is already 70 mph.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.