Traffic increased on I-75 for 6 years. Then the pandemic hit

Commute times remain short -- a selling point to businesses -- despite increase in traffic volumes.

Dayton’s busiest freeway saw six consecutive years of traffic growth until the pandemic hit.

More vehicles on Interstate 75 means more people driving to jobs, and businesses taking more orders and shipping more product.

Although Ohioans have been driving much less during the coronavirus crisis, local officials say they believe this is just temporary and traffic volumes will grow when the pandemic threat abates.

Traffic growth along the interstate hasn’t led to significantly more gridlock. Dayton remains one of the least congested major U.S. markets and local workers generally have short commute times, according to multiple studies and officials.

“We constantly hear from site selectors that commute times are a significant consideration for businesses that are looking to locate to a region,” said Stephanie Keinath, vice president of strategic initiatives with the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We know that a 15 minute commute in Dayton versus a 1.5 hour commute in metro Atlanta or D.C. translates into real cost savings, productivity increases and overall employee happiness for our business.”

This fall marks five years since a massive rebuild of I-75 in Dayton was completed, and some community members say the project eliminated an accident-prone bottleneck and made the roadway safer and easier to navigate, which supports higher traffic volumes.

Annual average daily traffic along I-75 in Dayton, just north of U.S. 35, increased every year between 2013 and 2019, according to data from the Ohio Department of Transportation.

During that six-year time frame, traffic volumes increased by more than 30%, to 139,578 vehicles per day, the department’s data show. The 2014 count, however, was a projected estimate.

But daily traffic along that part of I-75 declined more than 16% last year, as many people worked and learned from home, travelers skipped vacations, and businesses and events scaled back or shut down.

Traffic volumes statewide declined more than 15 percent during the global public health crisis, said Tiffany Oliphant, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Department of Transportation’s District 7.

But after traffic volumes dropped by 50% last April, they began to rebound, she said, and truck traffic volumes actually exceeded those from 2019 by around June.



More traffic a sign of busy economy

Traffic growth signals that people are driving to jobs, goods are being delivered to market and raw materials are being hauled to manufacturing plants, Oliphant said.

Recent traffic growth is “absolutely a good sign” for the region, which has a strategic geographic advantage that is attractive to logistics and distribution businesses, said Keinath, with the chamber.

Local partners have worked hard to position the region as a logistics and distribution leader, she said, because the I-75 and I-70 corridors are critical connectors to commerce across the nation.

Increased traffic also corresponds with the opening of some large warehouse, distribution and fulfillment centers in the region, including massive projects at the Dayton International Airport.

“It would make sense that part of the increase is those efforts coming online,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO of the Dayton Development Coalition. “There could also be a element of supply chain movement, as well, as local manufacturing operations expand and new ones come to the region. If their parts come via truck, that would mean more traffic on the highway.”

Commercial trucks have accounted for a larger share of traffic on I-75 in Dayton in recent years.



Traffic jams

The coalition often touts the region’s short commute times as a workforce selling point, Hoagland said, because it’s an asset for companies looking to move their products to consumers.

“People here don’t generally waste their time in gridlocked traffic,” he said.

The Dayton region ranked 76th out of 80 U.S. communities for its level of traffic congestion last year, and it has consistently ranked as one of the least congested markets for years, according to TomTom Traffic Index, which compiles data from navigation devices, built-in dash systems and smartphones.

Nearly 29% of commuters in the Dayton metro area spend less than 15 minutes in the car getting to work, and two-thirds have a commute of less than 25 minutes, according to U.S. Census survey data.

“Our short commute times mean people don’t have to sacrifice where they want to live for their jobs,” Hoagland said. “They can live in an urban, suburban or rural setting and still have a short commute time.”

Some businesses have moved to the Dayton region because of the reasonable commute times to Cincinnati or Columbus.

Drivers in Dayton spent 16 fewer hours in their vehicles last year than they did in 2019, said Carol Hansen, public relations manager with TomTom.

Traffic in Dayton was down 20% in 2020, she said, but congestion levels are now creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Malfunction junction

Many people say I-75 through Dayton is safer and traffic flows more smoothly because of a $306 million project that started in fall 2007 and ended in fall of 2016. That work eliminated the notorious “malfunction junction” interchange and reduced the number of on and off ramps.

The reconstruction“flattened” the I-75 northbound curve at the Ohio 4 interchange (malfunction junction), and it also widened the highway to provide three continuous lanes in each direction.

After softening the curb, the speed limit was increased from 45 mph to 60 mph, which is more appropriate for interstate traffic, said Ana Ramirez, director of transportation planning and funding with the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission.

“The braided design of the I-75 (northbound) on ramp from Main Street and (northbound) exit ramp to Ohio 4 eliminated a dangerous weave condition,” she said. “Left turn entrances and exits, which are not ideal, were also eliminated.”

The Ohio State Highway Patrol no longer has crash data from before the reconstruction project started for the three-mile section of I-75 spanning near Stanley Avenue to Edwin C. Moses Boulevard.

But crashes increased each year from 2014 and 2018. But for the past two years, crashes declined, according to the state patrol.

Some state officials previously told this newspaper that crashes likely increased because of surging traffic volumes. Last year, less traffic on the road meant fewer opportunities for crashes.

The I-75 project “drastically” improved safety on I-75 to get to Grandview Medical Center, said Kettering Health Network.

“The project reduced the number of exits on the downtown stretch of I-75 and eliminated left lane exits on the freeway to increase safety,” the organization said in a statement.

Alan Pippenger, president of Requarth Co. in downtown, said the I-75 modernization project didn’t impact how his lumber company’s trucks access the highway and U.S. 35.

But Pippenger said generally speaking the road improvements made it easier to ship products and for customers to get to the lumberyard and showroom.

“The construction itself caused some disruption and occasional headaches, but you can’t avoid that, and the benefits will last a very long time,” he said.

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