Nigerian Cement: At The End Of The Tunnel?

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CINCINNATI -- It's been more than a year that Lindsey Bahr has had to take the long way around to her Downtown office on Third Street, thanks to multiple construction projects restricting access to the Lytle Tunnel on Interstate 71.

"It's definitely more difficult to get in in the morning," Bahr told WCPO. "It adds about 10 to 15 minutes to my commute every day."

The good news for Bahr and other commuters working Downtown: The light at the end of the tunnel is fast approaching -- literally.

"We're looking at (the tunnel reopening) sometime in October," said Brian Cunningham, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Transportation's 8th district, which serves most of southwest Ohio.

"We're a handful of weeks away," Cunningham said. "I think there will be a lot of relief provided as folks traverse 71." 

But there will still be a fair share of driver frustration.

It's all part of a larger set of construction projects spanning I-71 from the tunnel all the way to Interstate 275:

Map showing major projects underway in 2017 across Hamilton County. (Courtesy Ohio Department of Transportation)

In the tunnel's case, the work was meant to bring it up to fire code and modern design standards, including lighting fixtures, ventilation, concrete repairs and the installation of a fire-detection system. Work on the $32 million project began in June 2015, and the tunnel closed completely nearly a year later.

The northbound tunnel lanes and southbound lanes onto Fort Washington Way recently reopened, but the busy exit connecting to Downtown and the riverfront have remained closed.

That still leaves Bahr taking detours in the mornings. She works for E.W. Scripps Co. -- WCPO's parent company -- in the corporate offices on Third Street. She can practically see the Third Street exit from her offices' windows.

It's sort of like dangling a gift just out of reach.

The number of traffic lights and city blocks Bahr has to traverse nearly tripled when the Third Street exit tunnel closed. Instead of three lights from the highway to her parking garage, she takes the Gilbert Avenue exit, onto Eighth Street, then Sycamore, then finally onto Third.

"You've got two lanes coming off the Gilbert Street exit, and everyone's trying to maneuver through Downtown with the slow speed limits and all the stop lights," she said, adding that some mornings the backup piles all the way back past Jack Casino, up Gilbert Avenue. 

"It really creates a bottleneck," and not just during the morning commute. The exit also provides the most direct access to The Banks and the riverfront, so Reds and Bengals fans headed down I-71 to a game have also felt the frustration.

But Bahr's experience with the I-71 work goes beyond just Third Street. Coming all the way from Mason, Bahr sees the full range of the I-71 construction, making the inconvenience of the exit closure -- a hurdle she hits right at the finish line -- feel like insult on top of injury.

"With all the additional construction coming down on 71 it makes it that much more of a headache," she said.

There's also an extra layer of irony in it for Bahr, who moved from Centerville, Ohio to Mason to reduce the time it takes to get to work.

"I moved to Mason in hopes of shortening that commute, and then all this construction started," she said. "So now I'm still running almost the same commute times."

It's a headache that Cunningham insists will come to an end soon, and around when officials estimated.

"We gave an estimated finish date of 'fall 2017' to account for any delays that might have come from weather or other unforeseeable things," he said. Now his team is able to get as specific as mid-October.

The project's at the finishing-touches phase, Cunningham said. After another few weeks of heavy work, crews will then go into testing and inspection mode, in which they touch up any rough patches of pavement and other edges that need smoothed.

"It varies from project to project," he said.

The timing of the tunnel project's conclusion was meant to align with the bridge deck replacement also taking place just north of the tunnel, Cunningham said.

"That project's finishing up and will be completed around the same time as our work on the Lytle," he said.

"In the next month or so, people are going to see a good deal of improvements."

In the meantime, Bahr and other Downtown commuters like her will have to continue to be patient and go the long way around, looking forward to next month.

"I think it's going to reduce my commute time for sure, and I think it'll make it a lot easier to get in and out of Downtown," she said.

Commuters can see the latest updates on all of ODOT's major Hamilton County highway projects here.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

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