Seven Freeways for Seven Hills: Cincinnati’s Long and Winding Highway History

Devising a comprehensive transportation system for a city like Cincinnati, Ohio is no easy feat.  As you can infer from the title, the city is home to seven major hills within the city limits, with some local experts arguing that there are considerably more than that.  And as anyone with a smidgen of highway planning and/or construction will tell you, building roads with hills or mountains in the vicinity can be way more costly and complex than building on flat land, not to mention the increased safety issues.   Complicating matters is the fact that the Cincinnati metro area overlaps with the state of Kentucky, so major transportation projects that benefit the area as a whole can require multiple levels of government involvement.  Further complicating matters is that much of the city, including the downtown business district, sits atop the Ohio River, which has been prone to major flooding throughout the city’s history.  One particular devastating flood occurred in early 1937, which left 100,000 residents of Cincinnati homeless.  As a result of these factors, Cincinnati’s transportation system is probably far more complicated, convoluted, and fascinating compared to many other cities in the United States.  Along with the many roads and freeways, whole networks of bridges, tunnels, and viaducts link the city’s challenging topography.

Cincinnati has had more than its share of “false starts” in its transportation history.  For fans of “abandoned Ohio”, the unfinished Cincinnati subway system is an exciting focal point.  Originally planned to connect downtown with the suburb of Norwood, construction on the line began but was then halted in the 1920s.  Since then the six stations have been sealed off from view from the general public, though they are still very much in existence.

cincy-subway-r1

Underground view of the Race Street Station.  Photo taken from Cincinnati-transit.net.

Then there’s the issue of air travel.  Cincinnati’s main international airport is not in the same county or even the same state, but across the river in Covington, Kentucky, hence the airport’s three-letter code “CVG”.  Until the 1940s, Lunken Airport, which was located on the city’s east side, was the main commercial flight operation.  That is, until the 1937 flood submerged the airport under 20 feet of water.  Even if the flood didn’t happen, the airport was constrained by foggy conditions and the surrounding hillside — in other words, no room for expansion.  Originally there were plans to build a new airport in the suburb of Blue Ash, but voters there rejected the idea.  Shrewd political leaders in the nearby flatlands of Boone County, Kentucky, however, were able to successfully lobby for the new airport, which opened for business in 1946.

And then, of course, there are the freeways.  Along with the fabled “seven hills”, Cincinnati has seven freeways running through its metro area as well: I-75, I-71, I-74,  I-275, I-471, State Route 126, and State Route 562.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of Cincinnati’s highway system is the issue of safety, or lack thereof.  Journalist Erin Caproni points out that of the 350 most dangerous crash sites in the state of Ohio, over 50 of them are in the Cincinnati area alone.  Particularly problematic intersections include State Route 126 and I-71, Pfeiffer Road and I-71, and I-471 and I-71.  As if I-71 didn’t have enough problems in Cincinnati, local critics have also disliked the fact that the freeway cuts right through the central business district between Second and Third Streets in the downtown area, limiting pedestrian access to the riverfront.

Other freeways in Cincinnati have their own sets of issues.  Looking at local road maps, one can see that the major bypass, I-275, looks like a misshapen pinto bean.  From a purely logical perspective, however, I-275 is arguably not a particularly efficient bypass around the city.  Traveling north from Kentucky, one can take the western part of the bypass, which travels through the Kentucky suburbs, then wanders over into the state of Indiana before reaching Ohio, slowly meandering back to I-75 after 43 miles.  Taking the eastern route isn’t much shorter, at 41 miles.

Of course, if one doesn’t want to take the long journey of I-275, one can brave I-75 through the metro area itself, which in various parts is more like a roller coaster for motor vehicles.  One particularly infamous area, known as “Death Hill”, is a long downhill stretch of the freeway between Kyles Lane and the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington.  Known for its very high levels of accidents and fatalities, this segment of I-75 opened in 1962, though some might find it hard to believe that it would meet modern highway safety standards today.

i-75cincy

Facing northbound on the long downhill slope of  I-75 in Covington.  Downtown Cincinnati is in the distant center background.

Then there’s State Route 126, otherwise known as the Ronald Reagan Cross-County Highway.  The Cross County has proven to be a political lightning rod for the Cincinnati area.  Originally conceived as a means to improve east-west travel in central Hamilton County, developers wanted to build the freeway as a means to relieve congestion on nearby Galbraith Road.  By the early 1960s, the first segment of the Cross County was complete, linking Galbraith with Montgomery Road, just to the east of I-71.  By the mid-1970s, another segment was completed between the west side of I-275 and Colerain Avenue.  It would be a whole 20 years before the two segments were finally linked together in 1997.  Even then, the Cross County remains incomplete to this day.  Residents of Indian Hill and Crosby Township successfully blocked the remaining segment from being completed, which would have connected Montgomery with the eastern side of I-275.

cincy-cch

At the eastern terminus of the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway, near Montgomery Road.

The Cross County was not the only expressway to fail to see completion in Cincinnati.  Just as local historians point out the existence of more than seven hills, so too were there more than the seven aforementioned freeways.  Three in particular hardly made it beyond the planning stages: the Colerain, the Taft, and Queen City freeways were all scrapped in their early stages.

Finding information on these scrapped freeways online isn’t easy, but reader David, a Cincinnati native, kindly sent me some relevant links.  According to the website Cincinnati-transit.net, the Taft expressway was to have run along nearby William Howard Taft Road, with its western terminus at the I-75/Western Viaduct/Harrison Ave. interchange (Exit 2B), and its eastern terminus at Columbia Parkway (U.S. 50), most likely near Torrence Parkway, with additional interchanges at Ravine Street, Vine Street , I-71, Gilbert Avenue, Victory Parkway, and Woodburn Avenue.

taftexpressway-map3

Map of the proposed Taft freeway showing some of the proposed interchanges, including Vine Street and I-71.

Although there isn’t a whole lot of physical evidence to support the planned construction of the Taft, one tantalizing piece is the I-71/Taft Rd. interchange (Exit 3A).  The off-ramp on southbound I-71 is exceptionally long, and then widens to three lanes before reaching the first stoplight:

I71TaftRoad

 

The Queen City expressway would have begun on the opposite side of the I-75/Western Viaduct interchange, traveling west and presumably running near Queen City Avenue and Cleves Warsaw Pike.  Proposed exits would have included Grand Avenue, Quebec Road, Queen City Avenue, Glenway Avenue, and Anderson Ferry Road.

53 Western Hills Viaduct - Google Maps

Facing west on the Western Hills Viaduct, near I-75.  This would have been the eastern terminus for the Queen City Freeway.

Finally, there was the proposed Colerain Expressway, which would have connected I-74 at the Colerain Avenue (U.S. 27) interchange with I-275 between Colerain and Hamilton Avenues, with interchanges at Compton Road, Galbraith Road, and North Bend Road.

colerain2

Looking northwest at the Colerain/I-74 interchange.  Note the ramp stubs for the proposed  Colerain freeway.  Photo courtesy of Cincinnati-transit.net.

 

The following map would give you some sense of where all the freeways would have been located, lined in purple:

cincyfreewaymap

 

Well, that’s enough for our “Ohio Tour” for now.  Next, we will head out east to Pennsylvania and upstate New York.  Plenty more to discover there!

 

Additional sources:

https://www.cincinnati.com/picture-gallery/news/local/2018/04/26/a-visual-history-of-cincinnati-transportation/33773547/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_75_in_Kentucky

http://www.cincinnati-transit.net/never-built.html

https://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/planning/assets/File/2001_northside_colerain_connector_land_use_plan.pdf

https://www.wcpo.com/news/our-community/from-the-vault/from-the-vault-why-cincinnatis-airport-is-in-kentucky-70-years-after-first-flights

https://books.google.com/books?id=P641AQAAMAAJ&pg=SA1-PA6&lpg=SA1-PA6&dq=cincinnati+ohio+state+route+126+history&source=bl&ots=Da9g—b-C&sig=ACfU3U39nB02Z-CysukdUtTAD36MWYv6Ng&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiYv4mYit_pAhWEbc0KHXRTDekQ6AEwBHoECAsQAQ#v=onepage&q=cincinnati%20ohio%20state%20route%20126%20history&f=false

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_revolts_in_the_United_States#Cincinnati

https://dir.md/wiki/Ronald_Reagan_Cross_County_Highway?host=en.wikipedia.org

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