News: Asphalt vs. Jungle

Eastern Corridor Project: New vision or just new packaging?

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Jymi Bolden

Mike Fremont says the new highway proposal is the same one he's fought for decades.

What some see as smart planning for Greater Cincinnati's Eastern Corridor is nothing but the same old sprawl, according to environmental activists.

Big changes are in the works for this slice of eastern Hamilton and western Clermont counties. Development in the Eastern Corridor — stretching from Evanston and East Walnut Hills to Miami and Union townships, including portions of 17 jurisdictions and many more communities within its 70 square miles — will change the places people live, work and play, along with the ways they choose to get there.

All sides agree the future of the area is at stake. The Eastern Corridor Project (ECP) is an effort to define and chart the future of the neighborhoods, towns and villages that will be affected.

The centerpiece of the project is a proposal for long-term transportation improvements that include conventional asphalt and concrete solutions as well as non-traditional approaches such as bike, bus and rail. The premise is that communities grow and prosper supported by the framework of the transportation system. If communities collaborate in building a system based on common goals, forward-looking, responsible land use should result.

Consulting 'citizen planners'
In theory at least, the ECP represents a departure from business as usual. Some say planning in any form would be an improvement.

The usual pattern goes something like this: In good economic times, a glacial advance of new homes creeps over the land, bringing automobiles and traffic congestion. Newer and bigger highways follow, bringing even better economic times that bring more homes, automobiles, bridges — and more water pollution, air pollution and noise pollution.

Because the ECP aims to break out of this cycle, it might seem welcome news to opponents of sprawl. The trouble is the Little Miami River lies squarely in the path of a proposed major improvement.

The Little Miami winds through 105 miles of southwest Ohio before it joins the mighty Ohio River just south of Lunken Airport. The Little Miami is home to unusually diverse populations of animals and plants THAT are, at least for now, pretty healthy.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ranks the Little Miami among the top 10 percent of river ecosystems and calls it the longest stretch of "exceptional warm water habitat" in the state.

Periodic threats to the river's vitality since the late 1960s, in the form of various bridge and highway initiatives, have met with sustained efforts to protect it from damage by human development.

Citing the stream's "outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural and other values," Ohio designated the Little Miami a State Scenic River in 1969. Federal recognition followed in 1980 with the selection of the Little Miami as a National Wild and Scenic River.

As powerful as those titles might sound, the protection is diffused. National Wild and Scenic Rivers are considered state-managed functions of the National Park Service, which means, not surprisingly, the river's real conservators are the local citizenry.

The Eastern Corridor Project has citizen input, too — in fact, it has "citizen planners." ECP promoters decided the only way to reach consensus among the multitude of jurisdictions was to have someone involved besides politicians and developers.

The project's six sponsors already included a broad constituency: the city of Cincinnati, Hamilton and Clermont counties, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the Ohio Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT).

"We wanted to create a different kind of process, similar to other 'thinking beyond the pavement' studies, that would provide opportunities to listen to people," says Gary Meisner of Meisner and Associates, consultant for the land use portion of the ECP.

Between December 2000 and April 2002, a core group of about 70 elected officials, community representatives, advocacy group representatives and private individuals forged a Land Use Vision Plan. Groups of 20 to 30 people from each of six geographical focus areas augmented the core group. Sometimes called the Vision Group, participants became "citizen planners."

In addition to training in basic planning principles, Meisner's firm presented the groups with analyses of the area's air and water quality, ecology, historical and archeological features, current and planned zoning restrictions, demographics and market and economic trends.

"We wanted the citizen planners to be able to take a holistic view, to develop an understandable future," Meisner says. "We need to expand horizons to respond to demands we don't even know what (they) are yet."

Just another highway
Consider the story of the seven blindfolded people meeting an elephant.

"It's like a snake," says one.

"It's like a tree," says another.

"It's broad and tall, like a house," offers a third.

So, too, with the future. What it looks like depends a lot on where you're standing.

The work of the Vision Group is the foundation for the ECP. Rick Record of Balke Engineers, consultant for the project's engineering and environmental impact study, says the Land Use Vision Plan answered the fundamental question, "Where are the people and where do they want to go?"

The ECP Advisory Committee, made up of many of the same people who served as citizen planners, is asking, "How do they want to get there?" Another, perhaps more central question, is, "What is the public willing to give up to get there?"

Discussions now underway aim to answer both questions. The data already gathered is being sifted and refined. Alternatives are being developed. The level of community participation is being raised through public meetings.

Record is frank about public involvement.

"Too many suits in a room and the reality goes away," he says.

One thing is clear: the transportation system that will result from the ECP will be multi-modal. Extended bus routes, two kinds of rail, bike and pedestrian paths and improvements in traffic management are all in the plan, in addition to increased highway capacity. Participants say multiple modes of travel are an economic imperative, in addition to being environmentally sound.

The study seeks to minimize the necessity for roadway investment by absorbing transportation capacity as effectively as possible into other modes.

"It's a matter of fiscal responsibility, to make the best use of available funds by combining modes," says ODOT spokeswoman Diana Martin. "We are able to leverage many kinds of development at the same time. When you couple modes, you extend the capacity of both."

Intermodal transit is not really a matter of choice, according to Ted Hubbard, chief deputy to the Hamilton County Engineer. Highway construction alone cannot do the job, he says.

"There is absolutely no way we could build our way out of highway congestion," Hubbard says. "According to the American Highway Users Alliance, between 1970 and 1999 vehicle miles traveled increased by 130 percent, while total road mileage increased by only five percent."

But Mike Fremont of Rivers Unlimited says a road isn't needed at all. His connection with the Little Miami began more than 30 years ago, working to stop a project to relocate U.S. 50 near Terrace Park.

Fremont says the ECP is simply a way to get the highway accepted.

"It's the same as it was with the Mill Creek," he says. "That was supposed to provide flood control and recreation. There isn't any recreation on the Mill Creek."

Fremont quotes an ECP promoter at a public meeting: "There is going to be a highway. What do we need to do to make it the best highway it could be?"

The remark calls into question the ECP's commitment to non-highway transport options, according to Fremont.

"The general public is not being served," he says. "It's losing its playground, it's getting polluted and it's paying taxes. It's time we wake up as a nation. The last word hasn't been said."

To learn more about the Easter Corridor Project, visit For more information about the Little Miami River, visit

Public meetings about the Eastern Corridor Project are:

· 4-7 p.m. Monday in the Center Court at Eastgate Mall

· 4-7 p.m. Wednesday at John P. Parker Elementary School, in Madisonville

· 11 a.m.-2 p.m. May 23 at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, 441 Vine St.

· 4-7 p.m. May 29 at Turpin High School, Anderson Township.

· 4-7 p.m. June 3 at LeBlond Community Center, in East End.

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