Curious Cbus: Why Is There An Abandoned Highway Downtown?

May 28, 2018

On the west side of Scioto Audubon Metro Park in downtown Columbus, people mount climbing walls, play on beach volleyball courts and ride down bike paths.

But if you walk just north along the bike path by the water tower, the park turns from a peaceful trail with chirping birds to something a little more eerie: a worn down metal fence protected by an orange snow fence, blocking off a road. And on the other side: an abandoned overpass.

WOSU listener Katie Merkhofer asked Curious Cbus about why the overpass was built and why it’s still there - and, most importantly, if this highway will herald the start of a zombie apocalypse.

An “Ominous” Bridge

The overpass—which can be seen clearly on Google Maps—passes over The Split, where Interstates 70 and 71 merge. The former highway begins in Scioto Audubon Metro Park and ends at a fence, just before a set of railroad tracks underneath the Miranova building.

Merkhofer, who’s lived in downtown Columbus for about five years, said she didn’t realize the bridge was there until about six months ago, despite having driven under it and run past it many times.

“I never noticed I drove under a bridge where cars weren’t allowed on, and I drive out towards the suburbs every day for work,” she said. “Then one day it occurred to me to look up and notice that it was a rusty bridge and no cars were on it and kind of pay attention to why it was there.”

The bridge itself is visually worn, with graffiti a common occurrence. Weeds and grass grow between the cracks in the road, while bushes and trees made their homes on and around sections of guardrail.

Two kids on a bike and scooter were playing on the downtown overpass, which stopped being used in the 1990s.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Walking on the bridge is “really weird,” Merkhofer says.

“You’re walking over a highway, there’s not a lot of guard rails,” she said. “It’s sort of ominous, like a car could come out any moment—or zombies—and come towards you, and you don’t know what’s on the other side of the bridge.”

While she says her knowledge of the bridge is limited, Merkhofer assembled a theory about what the bridge was used for.

“It looks like it was connected on the side towards downtown and on the side towards the Audubon, and then I assume when they built up the area they just decided to cut it off and make other highways around it,” she said.

A Look From Above

Merkhofer doesn’t seem to be far off.

No one we spoke to knew exactly when the bridge was first built. But we were able to pinpoint a general time range using old aerial satellite images (input coordinates 39.952828, -83.010205 to find the area of the bridge).

Getting to the abandoned overpass is a matter of a short walk north from Scioto Audobon Metro Park.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

In 1953, aerial images show the overpass did not yet exist, but it did serve as a road connecting to a car bridge over Scioto River.

By 1957, the intersection has been removed and is being replaced with an overpass. The project was completed sometime between then and 1963, where the aerial shows the overpass connecting both sides of I-70/71 in something of a cloverleaf interchange.

Anietra Hamper, a former journalist, wrote a book called “Secret Columbus: a Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure” in 2018 that mentions the abandoned bridge in question. Hamper spoke with representatives the city of Columbus about why the bridge was built.

“The Columbus City Engineer's Office says the section originally supposed to be a ramp from Mound Street to I-70 West, and there were some street configurations that went on, and the project was abandoned when a separate ramp from I-70 West was constructed at Civic Center Drive and 2nd Street,” Hamper said.

Development in the area caused the rearrangement of the area around the I-70/71 Split.

“The Ohio Department of Transportation confirms basically what they said at the Engineer’s Office, that the section of highway was closed off during the construction of Miranova sometime in the 1990s, streets were reconfigured and the section of highway was never used or even completed.”

Katie Merkhofer and Ben Roselieb talk to WOSU's Michael Lee about the abandoned highway. Merkhofer asked Curious Cbus about why it's there.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Comparing the 1971 aerial image and the 1980 aerial image shows one of the changes Hamper was told about: The ramp going onto I-70/71 from the overpass was torn down sometime during those nine years. But the ramp from 2nd Street and Civic Center Drive is still in use.

Exactly when the bridge was closed to traffic, though, is still unknown.

According to a 1999 article by Columbus Business First, the Miranova Place project off Mound Street began in 1995. Andy Beard, chief plans official for the Department of Building and Zoning Services, said that project led to the removal of the overpass connector.

Now, Mound Street ends in a cul-de-sac right before the train tracks. On the other side, a highway to nowhere.

However, even before the removal of the overpass connector, Beard said that the bridge was already closed to traffic when he began working with the city in January 1990.

“I can’t tell you who paid for or demolished the bridge,” Beard said in an email. “I also have no knowledge on why the bridges were abandoned in the first place.”

Katie Merkhofer, who asked WOSU about the abandoned highway, and Ben Roselieb examine the dead-end where the abandoned highway now ends.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Apocalypse Soon?

Even after the highway stopped being used, it was never truly abandoned. For years, the area around the train tracks served as the site of a major homeless camp.

That is, until the city of Columbus cleared it out. As WOSU reported in June 2017, about 60 people lived in the Scioto-Audobon homeless camp before it was razed. ODOT said it was a safety issue: the property was littered with more than 1,000 propane tanks.

The city tried to move people into shelters or housing, and then bulldozed the camp. Almost a year later, the area shows fragments of that previous life: bottles and pieces of clothes still litter the side of the road.

Now that it’s left in ruins, will this highway set the scene for an upcoming zombie apocalypse? Not unless an epidemic hits in the next two years.

According to Nancy Burton of the Ohio Department of Transportation, the bridge is “set to come down in 2020 during one of the phases of work to reconfigure the 70/71 corridor.”

Despite plans to remove the overpass, Hamper said she’d be happier to see it stay.

Clockwise from top left: Walking along the abandoned overpass. The overpass ends in a chain link fence on what used to be Mound Street. I-70/71 below the overpass. Until last year, the site used to contain an active homeless camp.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

“I think it would be great if there were the funds and opportunity to create some kind of highway overlook, like maybe they could make it a pedestrian walkway and do it safely over the highway so that people could see the skyline from that location,” Hamper.

Standing on the bridge, above rush hour traffic, Merkhofer agrees.

“People are already walking over it, running over it, and it connects to all the trails in the area,” she said.

We’re still searching for more information about the origin of the bridge and why it stopped being used. If you know anything, tell us about it in the comments!

And if there’s another weird part of Columbus you want to know more about, submit your own question to our Curious Cbus series.

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