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The Past, Present, & Future of the Innerbelt

Friday, September 12, 2003 at 11:16 AM

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The Cleveland innerbelt bridge recently turned 44 years old. The birthday was a happy occasion for some. But for others, it brought back hard feelings. The anniversary passed quietly and will be one of the last for the dying roadway. Engineers say it needs to be torn down. Generations of road salt, freezing winters and baking summers are causing its cement and steel to fall apart. A three-year innerbelt study will soon be completed. It will contain recommendations on how to replace the bridge and improve connecting freeways. ideastream's Mike West takes us on a visit to the innerbelt bridge and looks at its uncertain future.

Crossing the Cuyahoga River has been a problem since the founding fathers arrived in Cleveland. As the city grew, farmers, freight haulers and commuters have clogged roads and bridges to get their goods to market. The first central viaduct bridge opened 1888 and was considered a marvel of its day. It was eventually closed to traffic because of safety concerns and later scraped for iron during World War II. When today’s eight-lane bridge opened it was one of the widest in the world, and the most expensive mile of road ever constructed in the state. Dignitaries were on hand for a ribbon cutting. On foot and behind the wheel, the first crossing came at about noon on August 18, 1959.

Dennis Crauthamel: It was a summer day, the whole family went down, we still own the houses on Tremont and we all went down there for the ribbon cutting.

An 8-year-old Dennis Crauthamel recalls the ribbon cutting. Although just a tyke, he knew something big was happening, and it called for a special diet.

Dennis Crauthamel: It was a nice day and toward the evening, and after that we went to Royal Castle and had hamburgers.

Crauthamel says some long time residents still call the innerbelt the new bridge and gripe because they think the it transported some of the neighborhood’s character out of the community. But Crauthamel doesn’t agree.

Dennis Crauthamel: The innerbelt brings things to the city, it takes things out, but I think it brings more things into the city than it take things out.

Joseph Repko: The freeway has really shaken the parish, it vibrates the parish and you can see the cracks in the walls. In that way, I would say it would be, and has been, a detriment to the parish.

Father Joseph Repko’s church is nearly next door to the innerbelt bridge.

Joseph Repko: My parish became less of a neighborhood parish where people lived around the parish, they walked to church and being that the freeway took a lot of the neighborhood, a lot of the houses they had to move out of the neighborhood and so it really did change the neighborhood in Tremont.

The priest is afraid a proposed lane expansion would cause even more physical damage to his church, or could force the congregation out of the building completely. But while the church copes with living next to the viaduct, others give thanks to the structure.

Up to 160,000 vehicles cross the innerbelt daily, bringing customers to area businesses. Bernie Sokolowski is a co-owner of Sokolowski’s University Inn. His parents opened the restaurant in 1923.

Bernie Sokolowski: We were predominantly back then, a tavern, served a little bit of food and then a lot of the workers who worked on the bridge came in and had drinks and also wanted to eat. So my grandma decided to start making some of these homemade dishes that she made and one thing led to another and because of the bridge being built we basically converted from a bar into a restaurant.

Many buildings were torn down to clear the way for the freeway. But Sokolowski doesn’t think it was a great loss.

Bernie Sokolowski: There were people here that lived down here that lost their homes, but a lot of them were probably not in that good a shape anyway. So the homes probably would have eventually been torn down anyway. But overall it’s very helpful to us, this bridge.

Transportation officials say the viaduct will have to be replaced. But the bridge is only one element in the freeway’s future. Craig Hebebrand is the project manager of the innerbelt study. He says, most belt roads form a loop, that’s why they’re called beltlines or beltways. Hebebrand says the idea is to route traffic around downtown areas. The design allows vehicles to exit closest to their destination, easing inner-city congestion. But in Cleveland, the belt was never buckled, that’s why five freeways are jammed into each other on, or near the bridge.

Craig Hebebrand: When it originally opened it was only the bridge and its approaches itself. So it went from tremont to downtown and no further in 1959. By 1962 it had been extended to the lake and connected to the shoreway and it had been extended south. By 1968 it was connected to the 71 further south and began to move traffic from the Parma area and other places in and out of downtown.

Hebebrand says after 3 years of study, the innerbelt project has been narrowed down to four options. They range from spending $340 million to simply replace the deck. At the other end of the spectrum is the deluxe option. The billion-dollar proposal calls for building connector roadways, adding public transportation, and creating boulevards along the lakefront and to University Circle. Transportation, political and community leaders hope to have their final plan agreed upon by the end of the year. Constructions could follow in 2007. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

Additional Information

* Cleveland Innerbelt Study Team Works Closely With New Neighborhood Planning Committee
- Innerbelt Access
* The Old Detroit-Superior Viaduct - Bridges of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County
* Downtown Cuyahoga River Bridges

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