Springtime is an especially busy time for construction on the Ohio Turnpike. The toll road typically schedules its full-time resurfacing zones between early April and mid-to-late June, as well as after Labor Day, to avoid causing major traffic jams during the peak summer driving season. Turnpike maintenance crews also do a lot of lesser repair work on a day-to-day basis this time of year, perhaps catching up on any winter-related damage -- though there shouldn't have been much of that this year, right? -- along with periodic crack sealing, guardrail repairs, and other housekeeping.
The cumulative effect of work zone after work zone can be rather aggravating for turnpike travelers, especially in the resurfacing areas where lane closings are left in place all day even though the work is done at night. Perhaps most annoying to the reader who wrote to complain about the daytime inactivity in the work zones is the 50-mph speed limit the Turnpike posts in its work areas, which is in effect whether work is actually being done or not. When half the turnpike is seemingly afflicted with work zones, he wrote, the main benefit one expects to get for one's tolls -- a faster trip than can be had on U.S. 20 or Route 2 -- goes away.
If the Turnpike were to follow ODOT's standard practice, which is to reduce the speed limit by 10 mph in most work areas, then its 70-mph limit would reduce to 60 in work areas. That's probably too fast when work is going on. And turnpike spokesman Lauren Hakos observed that the time difference to get through a 10-mile work zone at 50 mph is just 3.4 minutes longer than traveling 10 miles at 70. She also confirmed our reader's report that there seemed to be a lot of state troopers in the work zones enforcing the 50-mph limit, noting a recent work-zone truck crash on the toll road in Sandusky County that killed a Turnpike maintenance worker and injured two others.
In light of that crash, in particular, it's a tough time to suggest that the Turnpike overdoes it on work-zone safety. But I also get why my correspondent is annoyed. While an extra 3.4 minutes may not seem like much time, 50 mph feels like plodding on a high-speed road like the Turnpike, and a speed that low seems really unnecessary when nobody's actually out there doing anything. Ms. Hakos explained that the nighttime projects are scheduled that way because it allows the contractors to shut down an additional lane during their work hours without severely backing up traffic. Adding another work shift during the day would increase the contractors' costs, she surmised, and the day crew wouldn't be as efficient since it wouldn't be able to work on as much of the road without the additional lane closing.
The spokesman also defended the Turnpike's practice of leaving resurfacing zones up full-time, rather than setting them up and taking them down for each work shift as ODOT now does on many comparable projects. Set-up and take-down would add cost and extend the time needed to get the work done, Ms. Hakos said.
I'll concede, the construction set-ups on the Ohio Turnpike could be worse. Twenty-two years have not softened my memory of one of the most brutal work zones I have ever encountered, on I-90 in northern Illinois. For the entire 50-or-so miles between the Tri-State Tollway and Rockford, I-90 was reduced to one lane each way for pavement patching when a friend and I drove it on a Sunday evening in June, 1990. The only exception to the single-file traffic was at tollgates. It was a mad dash at each plaza for motorists to get into what they thought would be the fastest tollgate lanes, with a particular goal of getting ahead of the heavy trucks that jammed up the works for the miles and miles in between. Paying tolls was especially galling when the level of service being provided to motorists was so spectacularly lousy.
But I'd like to see the Ohio Turnpike set up a work/no-work speed limit differential for its work areas, as many other states have done. How about 60 mph when no work is occurring, and 50 (or even 45) when a work zone is active? Some states, including our neighbors in Indiana, activate flashing lights on the work-zone signs when workers are present, so there's no doubt which speed limit is in effect. I'm all about strict enforcement when workers are truly being protected, too, but 50 is silly when there is nothing going on, or if traffic is separated from the work area by one or more rows of stout concrete barriers, not just orange barrels. Setting speed limits is always a compromise between convenience and safety; if safety were the only consideration, then we probably shouldn't be allowed to go faster than 25 mph anywhere.
As long as the Turnpike's work zone policies stay as they are, the best advice is to be sure to check the Road Warrior column and the Turnpike's Web site for construction zone information, and don't plan on making 70-mph time all the way. I mention the Web site because my column isn't really set up to do day-to-day updates on maintenance zones -- nor is the Turnpike particularly aggressive about publicizing them.
BY THE WAY: There's a new full-time work zone starting up Saturday (May 5) on the Turnpike near Cleveland. Between Mileposts 164.8 and 170.1, reconstruction of the westbound lanes will reduce traffic to two lanes each way. Westbound traffic will be split through the work area, with the left lane crossing over to the eastbound side. This zone will be similar to the westbound reconstruction that occurred near Fremont last year. The eastbound side will be re-done in that Fremont-area zone starting on Tuesday (May 8).