All photos this section courtesy Larry Stulz

Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway

Cross County Highway, as the name implies, forms a suburban east/west lateral route across Hamilton County connecting  I-71I-75I-275, and numerous major radial roads.  The highway roughly parallels Galbraith Rd. for most of its 17 mile length, alternately running to its north or south, terminating at I-275 in the west and Montgomery Rd. in the east (see top photo).  It has no major bridges or other noteworthy landmarks, and runs primarily through residential neighborhoods built in the decades following WWII.

The highway was originally conceived in the 1940's as a short three mile lateral between the Millcreek (I-75) and Northeast (I-71) expressways to provide access primarily to the Blue Ash Airport, which was expected to become the region's major airport.  By the late 1950's the scale of the proposed project had greatly increased, with the modest originally planned lateral extended in both directions to intersect the proposed I-275 circle freeway both to the east and west.

The first 1.5 mile segment between Galbraith Rd. and Ridge Rd. opened in 1958.  Steady eastward progress was made in early 1960's to Montgomery Rd., where the residents of Indian Hill were successful in blocking a three mile connection east through their jurisdiction to the future location of I-275.  Montgomery Rd. therefore became the permanant eastern terminus of the highway, and the Galbraith Rd. interchange, where construction began in 1956, remained the western terminus of the eastern section until 1991.

Reflecting the era of its construction and its sub-interstate status, this eastern third of the highway originally had no median, no emergency shoulders, no merging lanes, and crude unlit signage of the type still sometimes seen on state highways in the eastern United States.  It was rehabilitated and improved in 2000-2001, with a new concrete divider replacing the previous low metal one, merging lanes lengthened at interchange ramps, and emergency shoulders paved where there were originally only curbs.  The original signage was replaced with large, well-lit interstate highway style signage.  The old overpasses were painted green and white.  The exception to these improvements is the short segment between I-71 and Montgomery Rd., which for the time being retains all of the scruffy attributes that once defined the entire eastern portion of the highway.

One of the goofy old interchanges, seen here in 2001 during rehabilitation work. 
An interchange of this type can also been seen elsewhere in the Cincinnati area
on the Norwood Lateral near Montgomery Rd.

Despite recent improvements, the eastern portion is still home to a few of the more bizarre road quirks in the Cincinnati area. Two of the interchanges are not fully grade separated, with one of the I-71 interchange ramps forming a 3-way intersection with the through lanes of Cross County Highway. While this intersection sports a traffic light, another ramp a mile west requires traffic heading east to cross the westbound lanes with only a stop sign regulating traffic.

There was no additional construction until the mid 1970's, when a segment between I-275 and Colerain Ave. opened in conjunction with the adjoining stretch of I-275. This two mile stretch received almost no traffic -- one could, quite literally, drive from the I-275 interchange to Colerain Ave. and not see another car.  Unlike the crude eastern portion of the highway, the new western section was built to full interstate standards, with a wide grass median and high speed interchanges.  With nearly non-existant traffic and infrequent police patrols, it quickly established itself as a proving ground for those test driving cars from Colerain Ave. auto dealerships and a Friday night drag strip for area high schoolers.   

The Blue Rock Rd. interchange, with I-275 visible near the top of the photo. 
The I-275 interchange and western terminus of Cross County Highway is just
to the left of this photo.  The Colerain Ave. interchange is one mile to the right
of this photo.

The Colerain Ave. interchange was the eastern terminus of the short
western segment until 1997.

For decades the eastern section stopped three miles short of I-275 and an especially maddening half mile from I-75.  The western section was, as described above, the domain of outlaws.  The right-of-way through North College Hill and Mt. Healthy secured at a cost of 200 homes was overgrown and a source of bitterness for area residents.  And to make matters worse, due to new federal environmental regulation, some of the acquired right-of-way was declared a "wetland", requiring replacement wetlands to be established for every piece of natural wetland filled in.  This meant that additional houses and other buildings along the highway's path had to purchased and demolished in order to construct the replacement wetlands.

After over a decade of stagnation and the wetlands controversy still unresolved, work began on the massive I-75 interchange and short connection to the previous western terminus of the eastern section at Galbraith Rd.  This section opened in 1991 and was built to modern expressway standards, with a rather abrupt transition to the crude older eastern section.

A view of the sprawling I-75 interchange.  The I-75 Lockland Split
is visible just north of the interchange.

Despite the seemingly countless ramps built as part of this interchange, no connection was built between I-75 southbound and the new highway extension, requiring southbound I-75 drivers to exit at Galbraith Rd. and navigate local roads for several blocks before reaching Cross County Highway entrance ramps.  This situation is expected to be remedied in the upcoming decade as part of the massive improvements slated for I-75.  The interchange will become even more hirsutistic if express lanes currently under study area built. 

The conspicuous and no doubt expensive provisions made for further progress west of the I-75 interchange fortunately sat unused for only a few years, when in 1994 the two mile climb west to Galbraith Rd. in Finneytown opened for business.   At this point, ODOT announced that Cross County Highway would be designated Route 126, and that simply Rt. 126 would appear on signs in the manner that Rt. 562 appears on signs for the Norwood Lateral.  Hamilton County named the highway so as to avoid the anonymity of a random three digit number.  Former president Ronald Reagan was selected over the ubiquitous Martin Luther King, Jr. (Martin Luther King Drive is a major east/west thoroughfare through Cincinnati's University Heights and Walnut Hills neighborhoods) and Cincinnati-born cowboy Roy Rodgers to be the highway's namesake.  It became one of the first items in the nation to be named after the former president; unfortunately his poor health prevented his attending dedication ceremonies.  

The Galbraith Rd. interchange in Finneytown, looking north.  This spot
was the western terminus of the eastern portion of the highway
from 1994 until 1997.

Work on the final segment got underway almost immediately after the I-75 to Galbraith Rd. stretch opened, and the neighborhoods of Finneytown and North College Hill were the site of continuous heavy construction during the middle 1990's.  The final segment included the Hamilton Avenue and Winton Rd. interchanges, and was built below grade in a trench lined by sound walls for most of its length.  Replacement wetlands were built to the north of the Hamilton Ave. interchange in the form of an unremarkable narrow pond.  The pond is encircled by a nature trail, and from it one can observe the indigenous pandas, manatees, and spotted owls whose survival was threatened by the highway.

A view of the Hamilton Ave. interchange in 2001, with the "wetland"
barely visible parallel to the westbound exit ramp.  The bare patch is
the site of a new Kroger's Grocery Store.

Cross County Highway, looking east through Finneytown at the
Winton Rd. interchange.  This photo illustrates the trench type
construction that characterizes the final central segment.

This final segment opened in 1997 and ushered in a new era of automobile travel in Cincinnati's northern and northeastern suburbs. The dramatic cut in travel time between various destinations along the highway lived up to the hype. Almost immediately it was impossible to imagine life before the highway, and even now many area residents, myself included, are still amazed at how fast they can travel to the other side of town. The highway attracts a mild amount of traffic, and is only congested during a traffic accident. It seems unlikely that it will ever see a dramatic increase from its current traffic levels, since neighborhoods to its north and south along its entire length were already fully developed 30 years ago.  Had the highway been completed by 1970, it might have dramatically changed the way that Cincinnati's northern suburbs developed, with the office parks and shopping centers built along I-275 several miles to the north built along Cross County Highway instead.

Here are more excellent aerial photos from 2001 courtesy of Larry Stulz.  

The I-275 interchange forms the western end of the highway.

A view of the I-71 interchange, with the interstate running top to bottom and Cross County Highway
from left to right. This interchange includes the previously mentioned traffic light, visible at right.

The Ridge Rd. interchange.

The left side of this photo is the approach to I-75 built in 1991 and the
right side is an original segment from 1958.

Another one of the goofy old ramps on the eastern segment.

The Reed Hartman Highway interchange.

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