It’s 5:10 p.m. on a weekday in the Uptown area of Cincinnati. Thousands of workers spill out of buildings onto the sidewalks and then into their cars in garages and surface lots.

It’s the start of their commute home from the area north of downtown Cincinnati, the regional center of education and health care. And it’s a commute that today is neither smooth nor easy. Mostly it’s a stop-and-go process. Stop and go. Stop and go.

But that’s about to change. Work is underway on a new interchange nearby at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive that will allow commuters, visitors and emergency vehicles to easily access the Uptown neighborhoods of Avondale, Clifton, Corryville, Clifton Heights, Fairview, University Heights and Mt. Auburn.

Concrete pipes and large rolls of black tubing sit patiently on surface lots on either side of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive awaiting installation. Plastic traffic control drums wrapped with orange and white reflective bands funnel traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive over the I-71 bridge as Kokosing Construction Co. workers in massive, yellow construction vehicles move dirt and equipment on the interstate’s shoulder below.

The work here has been going on since the summer of 2014. And work widening the roads in the area and adding the new ramps on and off I-71 will continue until the $110 million project is completed in the summer of 2017, says Brian Cunningham, communications manager with the Ohio Department of Transportation’s District 8 office.

The new ramps and wider streets will provide quicker and more convenient access for the estimated 60,000 workers in the Uptown area, he says. The upgrades will also provide quicker access for emergency vehicles to the area’s hospitals, Cunningham says.

More importantly, though, the new interchange is expected to provide an economic boost to the Uptown neighborhoods. That’s why Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley says he started pushing for the interchange in the early 2000s while he served as a city councilman.

Cranley, who also was a member of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments during his time on council, says, “Interchanges in suburban areas are used to spur development and economic activity. And we believe that same lesson holds true in the urban core.”

While the construction of new interstate interchanges in the suburbs is not unusual, the new interchange on I-71 at Martin Luther King Drive is rare. “It’s unique because it’s an interchange in an urban area, which doesn’t occur that often,” says Cunningham.

It may be unique, but Cranley says the concept of building an interstate interchange to spur economic growth should be the same whether the project is built in the suburbs or in an urban area.

He was critical of building a new interchange off Interstate 75 at Liberty Way in Butler County, which was eventually built, because he felt it contributed to suburban sprawl. “I said, ‘Shouldn’t we be reinvesting in our urban core?,’” Cranley says.

So he took his plan for a new I-71 interchange at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the Uptown communities. “I went personally to community councils to get their support,” he says.

One key group that supported the project from the beginning was the Uptown Consortium, a nonprofit community development corporation founded by the CEOs of Uptown’s largest employers—Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, UC Health, TriHealth and the University of Cincinnati—in addition to the Cincinnati Zoo, the leading tourist attraction.

Once the support was in place, Cranley says it took thousands of dollars from the Uptown Consortium, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and the city of Cincinnati to pay for multiple studies of the plan to satisfy the federal requirements.

Once all of the required studies and public input meetings were completed, the interchange project would have normally languished for years waiting behind other state projects to be funded.

But when Gov. John Kasich, who espouses that a safe and efficient transportation system is critical to Ohio’s economy, announced a plan in 2013 to eliminate a backlog of transportation infrastructure projects the Martin Luther King Jr. interchange project was placed on the fast track.

Now, as the finish line for the interchange project appears closer, community leaders are already anticipating the jumpstart in their local economy. Ozie Davis III, executive director of the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corp., says he expects new offices, hotels and an expansion of the existing educational and health care institutions to result from the opening of the new interchange.

In addition, an “innovation corridor” catering to businesses that would support medical research in the area of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Reading Road is envisioned in a plan approved by the Cincinnati Planning Commission.

Should that happen Davis says, “We can infuse new residents or existing residents into the workspace that the innovation corridor might bring. And hopefully we can utilize the resources in the innovation district to really make our businesses strong.”

Beth Robinson, president and CEO of the Uptown Consortium, says the new interchange will not only spur redevelopment in the area, but also create new opportunities. “We feel it’s going to open up an area to new development which could bring jobs, new businesses and increase the tax base,” she says. “And all that’s good for the communities surrounding that.”

Robinson says more than 600 acres of land will be available for development. “There’s a lot of underdeveloped and underutilized land,” she says.

She says the consensus is that once the interchange is completed the area around it would be developed as a mixed-use district with offices, housing and retail. The area should be attractive to businesses that want to be near the institutions, particularly their research functions, she says. “It should have opportunities for innovation and research facilities that can take advantage of the proximity to all of the anchor institutions up here in Uptown.”

The Uptown neighborhoods are important to the future of Cincinnati, says Cranley. Students who go to UC or Xavier may stay and marry and decide to make Cincinnati their home, future entrepreneurs are coming out of UC and Xavier business schools, future workers are coming out of Cincinnati State and medical residents are coming and working at the hospitals, he says.

“So much of what you see about the future of Cincinnati is a young age being part of an experience in the Uptown area,” Cranley says. “And the access onto 71 has been really confined.”

But once the new interchange is completed he sees a rebirth in the region. “It’s one of those transformative projects that will revitalize the urban core and extend the renaissance from downtown and Over-the-Rhine into the Uptown,” Cranley says.