Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Life in the fast lane surrounds Toledo

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It came along in the last half of the 20th century, but it will influence where we work, live, shop, and play far into the 21st century.

The Toledo interstate highway system - 32 miles of concrete, steel, and asphalt - did more than link neighborhoods, stores, businesses, and industries: it reshaped human and physical geography.

Toledo's share of the highway system cost an estimated $150 million; $75 million has been spent to upgrade the system since its completion, and at least $100 million may be needed for rebuilding. No additions are planned, aside from the Maumee River crossing to replace the Craig Memorial Bridge.

It took 14 years to build, and it divided and destroyed some neighborhoods while creating new ones. Love it or hate it, you cannot ignore it. Taken as a single project, it was the biggest public works project in Toledo history.

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When the 20th century dawned in northwestern Ohio, the only roads were a few dirt trails paralleling an extensive railroad system.

Trains or the speedy interurban railway cars were the way to travel. You had a choice of 100 trains a day in and out to distant places while speedy electric interurban cars ran frequently and quickly to area towns.

Macadam and asphalt roads replaced the dirt trails along existing railroad lines. Steel bridges replaced wooden ones. Through World War II, roads generally were smoothed and widened as traffic demanded it, but few roads were designed for high speeds and fast travel. Highways still ran through the heart of town.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, it all changed. For in 1919, while a young army officer, Eisenhower led a motorized convoy across the country to determine the need for a nationwide highway system.

Construction started in 1957. The final gaps were not closed for more than 30 years. The final cost was estimated at $33 billion, although officials cannot agree on when, or whether, the network was completed.

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Years before the interstate system began in Toledo, there were the Detroit-Toledo Expressway and the Ohio Turnpike.

The expressway was an ambitious plan to link Detroit and Toledo with a four-lane highway, including a bridge across the Maumee River. Ohio and Michigan shared the cost, and Toledo kicked in a local share.

When the route of the Ohio Turnpike was finalized in 1952, it was decided the expressway would run through North Toledo, cross the Maumee, and connect with the turnpike and U.S. 20 in northern Wood County.

Construction began that year on the Craig Memorial Bridge. The bridge was completed in January, 1957, and nine months later the highway was finished. It later became I-280 but was not upgraded to interstate standards until 10 years ago.

On May 22, 1959, Ohio Gov. Michael DiSalle and Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams cut a ceremonial ribbon at the state line, opening a 56-mile expressway. First called the "Seaway Freeway" in observance of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway that year, it became part of I-75.

The motorcade that followed was stopped unceremoniously at the Craig Memorial Bridge. A freighter was going through.

Toledoans, who voted in 1949 to finance expressway construction, shut off the money spigot in 1957, rejecting by 3,000 votes a plan to provide the local share of the federal program. It was put on the ballot a year later and lost by 14,000 votes. Another method had to be found.

In early 1959, Lucas County commissioners Ned Skeldon, William Gernheuser, and Frank Mohn, seeing that the expressway program was in jeopardy, offered to pick up the local share of about $500,000 a year, assuring the area's 5 per cent local share until completion. Lucas County became the first Ohio county to assume responsibility for expressway work within a city.

It was a big job. More than 4,500 parcels of real estate, containing 4,000 structures - bungalows, duplexes, garages, stores, apartments, industrial buildings, restaurants, and gasoline stations - had to be bought, bulldozed, or moved out of the way. It was the equivalent of a city the size of Findlay.

Much of the real-estate work was handled by Armand Hocker, who had degrees in engineering and law. He said in a 1985 interview that he found he needed both in his job.

The first contract was let in 1959 for piers for the DiSalle Bridge over the Maumee River. It opened on Nov. 22, 1963, and officials canceled a ceremony because of the assassination of President Kennedy.

The largest single payment was made to the Sisters of Notre Dame on Secor Road - $657,856 for 19 acres of the campus taken by I-475.

The largest section, from downtown to U.S. 23 in Sylvania Township, was opened Dec. 15, 1970. During the three years of construction, Toledoans got unique glimpses of day-to-day road building.

Contractors routed major streets such as Monroe around bridge sites on temporary roads, dug out the site and built the bridges, then put traffic on the new bridges.

It changed daily life for many families - cutting off familiar routes and relocating former destinations.

What would later become part of I-80/90 - the Ohio Turnpike - opened in 1955, but it was largely inaccessible from other interstates until interchanges were built within the past decade at I-75 and at Airport Highway.

Major segments of two area interstates were opened between 1965 and 1970: I-475 from Central Avenue into northern Wood County, I-75 from Toledo through Wood County, and I-75 from I-280 to Lagrange Street.

The final and most expensive segment was the section from I-475 north to Detroit Avenue - a largely elevated highway over five surface streets, the Ottawa River, and a railroad. The contract was let July 28, 1970, and cost was estimated at $8 million.

The huge interchange east of Auburn Avenue claimed nearly all of three popular midcity parks - Willys, Jermain, and Beatty. The state reimbursed the city for its loss, and much of that money was spent to acquire what is today Swan Creek Metropark in South Toledo.

The road curves north and west around the Jeep Boulevard plant of what is now DaimlerChrysler, but it almost went right through it. In 1964, Mr. Skeldon and U.S. Rep. Thomas L. Ashley proposed that the route, approved by federal officials in 1960, be changed to allow the road to run through the plant.

A 2-year delay while the appeal worked its way through Washington pushed costs even higher, and the final 1.6-mile leg ended up costing $18 million. When it opened on Dec. 15, 1972, it was the costliest mile and a half of expressway in Ohio.

One part of the expressway was never built. The Downtown Distributor was to have joined I-75 near Washington Street. The beginnings of the ramps can be seen today, but they were never completed because city and state officials agreed the impact on downtown would have been devastating.

The distributor would have put an elevated highway over what today is Promenade Park and COSI.

Hank Harvey is a retired Blade staff writer.

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