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Sunday, July 29th, 2007

Kansas, Missouri Facing Road Funding Crunch

The Kansas City Star had an interesting article about road construction funding in Kansas and Missouri. Apparently both states have had major decade-long construction programs running, and now the funding is running dry. Missouri at least is considering a gas tax increase to keep things going.

I found a couple of things interesting. The first was comparing the current spending levels of both states back to Indiana’s Major Moves program. Both Kansas and Missouri are larger than Indiana geographically, but smaller in population. Kansas actually has less than half as many people as Indiana. But both states’ current construction programs are as large or larger than Major Moves. The Kansas program was 10 years, $13 billion, or $1.3 billion per year. I don’t know the length of the Missouri program, but they are spending about $1.1 billion per year. Major Moves is a 10 year, $11.9 billion program, or about $1.2 billion per year. So it is interesting that Indiana has only been able to accomplish with its toll road lease not anything different than two other smaller states managed to figure out how to do without leasing out a toll road. Presumably at the end of Major Moves, as with the end of these other states’ programs, highway funding will fall off a cliff.

The other thing of note was a brief mention of a desire to put dedicated truck lanes on I-70. This is the “Corridors of the Future” application that INDOT is leading the sponsorship of with the FWHA.

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Cities: Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

Restore 64 Wraps up Early in Louisville

The complete closure of I-64 west of downtown Louisville is now over, and the road has been reopened to traffic nine days ahead of schedule.

I never got a chance to drive in Louisville during this construction, but I get the impression that the congestion was manageable. There was certainly no firestorm of media coverage about outrageous backups and saying that 8664 would never work.

I think these sorts of hyperfix projects are the way to go whenever possible. Rather than restricting roadways for months if not years to complete projects, close them entirely for a shorter period of time, suck up the pain, and get it over quickly. This has the additional benefit of improving safety. You can’t hit a construction worker if you can’t even drive through the construction zone.

With notorious problems like the Kennedy Bridge painting fiasco, it is good to see the KYTC get a win here.

I think this project shows that 8664 is viable. First off, 8664 would include an eastern bridge, which would have given additional options to through traffic. It also doesn’t not even close that much of I-64, and includes a surface parkway into downtown. So the connectivity options there are in fact even better. I’m not necessarily endorsing 8664, but there should be some serious analysis done of the operational characteristics it might cause, using Restore 64 as a real life field test. The 8664 people themselves might want to see, for example, if even more of riverfront parkway could conceivably be torn down.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Louisville

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

Project Review: Lewis and Clark Parkway Widening in Clarksville, Indiana

Retail in Southern Indiana near Louisville was long synonymous with Highway 131 in Clarksville. This road housed the area’s main enclosed mall, Green Tree Mall, along with numerous other strip centers, car dealerships, and chain restaurants. It was a typical older suburban commercial strip of the type found in many communities across America.

As with many of those other commercial strips, Highway 131 was not aging well. The road itself was four lanes of cracked up concrete with drainage ditches and no sidewalks. Green Tree Mall expanded in the 80’s, then struggled as the enclosed mall fell out of favor as a retail format. Many of the strip centers were old and obsolete. With the coming of the I-65 reconstruction and the extension of Green Tree Boulevard north as a new, modern four lane road called Veterans’ Parkway (complete with I-65 interchnage), much of the better retail and restaurant brands decamped from Highway 131 for greener pastures.

The town of Clarksville did not stand still. Fortunately, the new retail was also in its borders, so it continued to have a strong tax base. The state of Indiana relinquished Highway 131 to the town as a street rechristened as Lewis and Clark Parkway. Now that’s an unfortunate and unwieldy name, but what Clarksville did to it was far from unfortunate.

Lewis and Clark was reconstructed and widened into a six lane road. Additionally, open ditches were replaced with curb and gutter, sidewalks were installed on both sides, the traditional Indiana stoplights dangling off wires were replaced with attractive mast arm lights, decorative street lighting was installed, and there was extensive landscaping added as well. Here is a picture of the streetscape (click the picture for a full sized view):

Now nothing is going to disguise the fact that this is a mega-highway lined with malls, but it is a big step up from the past, which unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of.

Note that despite the narrowness of the ROW with all those lanes, the sidewalk is not flush to the street. A small grass buffer was included. Also note the incorporation of landscaping elements besides just trees. The sidewalk also changes both color and texture approaching the crosswalk at an intersection at the bottom of the picture.

Here’s a closeup of the streetlight:

This isn’t a totally successful design. The light arm is too small in relation to the gigantic street. And the design is a bit quirky. But there are some great things about it too. Whatever you can about the design, the creator went for a more modern feel as opposed to some typical “olde tyme” street lamp of the type all too often installed. This is a modern commercial strip. Historic replicas of traditional Main St. gas lamps would have been out of place. The dark green color used here and throughout the project is also very tasteful.

Stop light design is something that is rarely thought about. There are two basic approaches: mast arm mounted lights and wire dangling lights. Indiana and many southern states seem to be big fans of the wire dangling variety, which are among the ugliest inventions of human kind. So to use mast arms here is a huge improvement.

This would be a typical intersection in a place like Illinois, but it is pretty rare for Indiana. Mast arms are used from time to time around the state, but this might be the first place I’ve seen them used on a six lane highway. The angling of the arm itself looks nice and adds interest, but at the price of requiring uneven light mounting in order to make the bulbs line up correctly. I’m not convinced that was a good tradeoff to make. The light installation looks sloppy. What’s more, that undersized streetlight poking off the top of the large support pylon is jarring. I would have eliminated that element. But overall, you have to rate this far above the average suburban Indiana stoplight.

Let’s look at at closeup of the lights themselves.

Note that the backs are painted black. Again, this would be standard operating procedure in a number of places, but very few stoplights in Indiana are like this. Even where decorative mounting arms are used, the lights themselves are almost always standard yellow. This is yet another plus for the project.

On the whole, this is one of the most successful suburban highway reconstructions I’ve seen. It increased capacity while addressing pedestrians and significantly improving the visual appearance of the roadway. Other cities and towns should look at this and make careful notes. Clarksville and Southern Indiana can be very proud of what they’ve accomplished here.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Louisville

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Downtown Malls In Columbus and Indianapolis

Continuing my series comparing the twin cities of Columbus and Indianapolis, it is worth noting that both cities have downtown malls. Columbus has the City Center mall, Indianapolis the Circle Centre mall. The Columbus mall opened first to great fanfare, and was home to destination stores like Marshall Fields. Circle Centre likewise opened to great hoopla, featuring the region’s only Nordstrom.

Since opening, the two malls have diverged significantly. Circle Centre in Indianapolis never lived up to its hype. It was originally intended to be a major regional destination with unique, upscale stores. There was a prime block of land adjacent to the mall with frontage on Monument Circle that was originally intended to host a third anchor. Over time, the profile of the mall changed. Simon company, which owned it, acquired management rights to all over area malls, including the upscale Fashion Mall on the north side. Rather than going to bat for a downtown mall, Simon had the Fashion Mall as its outlet for regional destination stores. And let’s face it, that’s where most of them wanted to go. The long rumored downtown Saks never materialized, but the minute space opened in the Fashion Mall, Saks snapped it up. No other third anchor ever materialized and the circle block, once touted as the best of the bunch, was eventually filled with an office building and hotel. The fourth floor, which had been originally conceived as an entertainment venue with bars and a movie theater, struggled from the get-go and is now all but vacant. While some destination stores remained and sales were solid if unspectacular, the mall was no longer a regional focal point, but primarily appealed to visitors. On the plus side, the mall became one of the premier dining districts in the city, pulling in throngs of visitors and locals pretty much every night of the week. While few other retail outlets sprouted outside the mall, its success as a dining destination created a major entertainment district throughout the south of downtown. So while Cirlce Center may not have lived up to the original vision, it certainly held its own and has become the real center and anchor of the downtown.

I’m far less familiar with City Center in Columbus, but its trajectory was far different. The mall has essentially tanked and become a white elephant downtown. See this article in today’s Columbus Dispatch for a sample. I can’t explain why this happened exactly. Among other things, City Center is on the opposite side of downtown from the convention center. Contrast that with the Indianapolis situation, where the mall is connected via skywalk to the convention center and many area hotels, as well as being very convenient to the RCA Dome and Conseco Fieldhouse arena. This probably hurt City Center. What’s more, Marshall Fields was never the anchor that Nordstrom was for Indy. And the mall never became the focal point of a downtown dining and entertainment district. Whether City Center can be saved as an actual mall is seriously in doubt. Interestingly, Simon owns this one as well, though I’m not certain if they inherited it via one of their many acquisitions.

So while Circle Centre may have its challenges, and in fact may yet suffer the same fate as City Center if it isn’t carefully tended, so far the residents of Indy can feel pretty good about how they have fared. In fact, few if any regional peer cities have a downtown mall as successful as Circle Centre.

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Mini-Review: I-80/I-94 Widening in Northwest Indiana and Chicago

I-80/I-94 through northwest Indiana and the south Chicago suburbs is a major national trucking corridor that is very heavily traveled. Known as the Borman Expressway in Indiana and the Kingery Expressway in Illinois, this road was, like many Chicago area freeways, routinely choked with cars and dead stop conditions were possible anytime day or night.

Over the past four years or so, IDOT and INDOT have reconstructed and widened this road from I-65 west. It is now four lanes in each direction instead of three, with collector/distributor lanes between interchanges. What’s more, all interchanges were completely redesigned and reconstructed to improve capacity, reduce weaving, and improve safety. Essentially all bridges throughout the project were replaced as well. And noise barrier walls were constructed in many places.

With the recent completion of the Kingery project, this upgrade is now all but complete. INDOT is still in the middle of rebuilding the I-65 interchange over the next three years (three years????) at a cost of $187 million. But the improvements already in place have made a noticeable improvement in traffic flow.

I think this project is overall first rate. Obviously I hate the tower lighting, but I’m like a broken record on that subject. I think the design is quite nice, and probably the best that could have been done given the right of way constraints. It probably won’t handle the traffic volumes forever, but then again, nothing could in the massive Chicago area.

When you combine this project with the I-65 widening INDOT did a few years ago, you can see that the state has almost completely renewed the freeway system of Lake County. I had long rated improvements to the Borman as the #1 road priority in the state, and I-65 improvements weren’t far behind. These projects should take care of the region’s freeway needs for some time.

I’m not sure how much money Indiana spent on this project, but it was certainly a lot. Illinois spent over $450 million on its section, which considering it is less than three miles is certainly stunning. It has long been known that road construction costs are higher in Illinois than most places. And this was a very complex project to construct, including some very lengthy flyover ramps. Also, Illinois designs for a 40-50 year pavement life (versus 20 years for Indiana), which at least partially accounts for the high price tag.

I find the Kingery project especially interesting as I think it is a solution that may be applicable to the I-465/I-69 project in Indianapolis. Both interchanges feature surface interchanges that are too closely spaced – Torrence Ave and 82nd St. respectively – to the freeway-freeway interchange. What IDOT did was to reconstruct Torrenace as a SPUI. Through traffic to the Tri-State Tollway (which has also been widened) passes inside the SPUI ramps. Traffic exiting and entering from the Calumet Expressway (I refuse to call it the Bishop Ford) or IL-394 uses a three lane each way C/D system that passes to the outside of the SPUI ramps. Now Torrence is further from the freeway-freeway interchange than 82nd St. is in Indianapolis. But I think INDOT ought to look at something like this as a solution in the northeast corridor.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

Friday, July 20th, 2007

Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

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Topics: Urban Culture

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

Columbus and Indianapolis Size Comparison

In another in my series of articles comparing the twin cities of Indianapolis and Columbus, I’ll present some market size data. It is incredibly difficult to give a true apples to apples comparison of the sizes of cities. City limits are highly arbitrary. Big parts of metro areas are often rural. There are many different ways one can compare two cities, all of them have various strengths and weaknesses. Some of these are:

  • City population – This is the actual population of the city itself. I usually consider this the worst measure since city limits vary so much in size. Though you can tell certain things about a market by the size of its central city. For example, I believe one reason Chicago thrived and St. Louis declined is that Chicago is a huge central city with over 2.7 million people whereas St. Louis had a much smaller central city in terms of population and geography.
  • Central County population. I actually like this measure for certain things like comparing crime rates. It can be a sort of proxy for city population in some regards.
  • Urbanized Area. This is a little known measure that is seldom referred to but I believe is the best way to compare apples to apples across cities. This is just what it says, namely the area that is contiguous and urbanized around an urban core without regard (mostly) to jurisdictional limits. The only downside is that it is difficult to get non-population data sliced this way.
  • Metro Area (MSA or CSA). This is widely used and is much better at giving a sense of how big a “city” really is. Lots of data is available sliced this way because MSA’s are always defined out of entire counties. However, they can mislead because of that, particularly in western states with gigantic counties. The Los Angeles CSA area extends all the way to Nevada, for example, and includes huge amounts of desert.
  • BEA Economic Area. This is another little known measure. The Bureau of Economic Analysis divides the country into trading areas that represent sort of the the separate “economies” around major cities. These are much larger than MSA’s, but again I think can be useful.
  • TV Market Size. This is defined by a private company – Nielsen Media Research – but is very important in corporate decision making. Nielsen calls its markets DMA’s, or dominant market areas, and talks about households rather than people.

So how do Columbus and Indianapolis compare? Here area some measures:

Item Columbus Indianapolis
City Population (2006) 733,203 (#15 nataionlly) 785,597 (#13 nationally)
Central County (2006) 1,095,692 (543 sq mi) 865,504 (403 sq mi)
Urbanized Area (2000) 1,133,193 1,218,919
MSA (2006) 1,725,570 1,666,032
CSA (2006) 1,953,575 1,984,644
BEA Economic Area (2005) 2,563,031 3,271,617
Nielsen DMA (Households) 898,030 (#32) 1,060,550 (#25)

As you can see, which city is “bigger” depends on which measure you look at. But I believe these statistics reinforce that for all practical purposes, they are the same size.

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

A Comparison of the Columbus and Indianapolis Freeway Systems

As I’ve noted many times, Indianapolis and Columbus are the closest thing to twin cities in the United States. Both are artificial towns, selected as the state capitals of next door states because of their central location. Both really didn’t come of age until the 20th century. Both are at the top of the league tables for Midwest growth and are actually growing their metro area populations at a faster rate than the national average. Both of them are at their zenith and rising in terms of national significance and influence. Both are geographically larger cities, Indy through city-county merger and Columbus through aggressive annexation.

Another thing that is similar about these cities is their freeway systems, based on a simple beltway and spoke model. In the first of what I hope to be a small series of articles comparing these cities over the coming months, I will compare the freeway systems of these two cities.

Starting from the inside out, both cities have an “inner loop” freeway surrounding downtown. If you look strictly at the map, Columbus would appear to have an advantage here. It has a complete 360 degree loop circling downtown while Indianapolis only has a partial loop. The west leg is missing, replaced by a surface highway called West St.

Probe behind the map, however, and the Columbus inner loop looks much less attractive. The design of this route is rather narrow and exposes a critical failure in ODOT’s design philosophy of the past. Namely, they assumed that the vast bulk of all traffic at a freeway to freeway interchange will exit to the cross-freeway rather than continue as through traffic. This seems to be a belief that was in vogue sometime in the past, because other cities such as Los Angeles suffer from the same. What this means is that if you are driving I-70 through downtown, there is actually only one through lane that stays on I-70. All the rest of the lanes exit to various other parts of the loop or surface streets. As you might imagine, this is a formula for congestion and safety problem, and downtown Columbus has both in spades. The inner loop is highly congested and has a large number of accidents. ODOT is planning to address the problem starting with a $550 million reconstruction of the southeast half of it. The northwest half remains to be addressed, and my guess it it will cost a similar amount.

The Indianapolis loop, by contrast, functions very well, with only limited congestion, mostly caused by weaving traffic. One specific trouble spot is the north side onramp to I-65 from 11th St., where traffic has to immediately cross several lanes of traffic in order to get into eastbound I-70. But other than these isolated spots, things are functioning rather well.

In terms of actual design, both were fairly destructive of the urban fabric when built, but the Columbus loop much less so. For example, I-70 south of downtown is principally depressed, so if you drive over it on the way to or from German Village, you can easily miss noticing it. My subjective view is that the freeway is much less intrusive to the urban fabric of Columubs than it is in Indianapolis.

The implication of this is that Columbus is going to have to dedicate a significant portion – probably about a billion dollars – of its available transportation funding in the next couple of decades to fixing the downtown loop. This is money that could otherwise be going to fix congestion elsewhere. Indianapolis won’t have to do that. On the other hand, Columbus has the opportunity to really improve the affect of the roadway on the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. There is a proposal to put caps on the loop, for example, during reconstruction. We’ll see if this gets funded. In Indianapolis, with is mix of elevated and depressed segements, wide ROW, lack of frontage roads in many cases, and a generally lack of “getting it” locally (witness the Market St. ramp relocation, for example), no improvements are likely.

Moving to the interior routes, Columbus has much better connectivity to downtown than Indianapolis does. There are six interior spoke routes leading from the beltway to downtown in Columbus: I-70 (2), I-71 (2), I-670, and SR 315. In Indianapolis there are only four: I-65 (2) and I-70 (2). Indianapolis also has no direct connectivity from its fastest growing suburban areas on the north and northeast sides into downtown. Originally I-69 in Fishers was to continue downtown as I-165, connecting at the north split, but this was cancelled because of neighborhood opposition. Columbus has a similar development pattern, but has two parallel freeway direct from the north into downtown. Columbus also has a couple of small “crosstown” routes, notably SR 104. Indianapolis has short Airport Expressway and Shadeland Ave. freeway segments, but nothing major. In Columbus, all of the spokes are basically six lane freeways. However, there are points where they interchange with other routes, and at those points they drop to four lanes, clearly not a good thing. In Indianapolis, the spoke routes are six lanes, excepting I-70 east which is eight lanes. That section of I-70 is the heaviest travelled highway in Indiana, with over 180,000 vpd. That’s because this is the route north side traffic is generally forced to take to get downtown.

On the whole, Columbus has a far superior interior freeway system.

Each city has a full circumferential beltway: I-270 in Columbus and I-465 in Indianapolis. They are nearly the same length, at 55 miles in Columbus and 53 miles in Indianapolis. There is a small northwestern spur in Indianapolis called I-865, which is basically just a long ramp. There are 27 interchanges in Columbus, 30 in Indianapolis.

Both loops feature a basic six lane cross-section for most of their width. I-270 is eight lanes for the entire northern arc, however, a significant distance. It also has a short four lane segment on the south side. As with the downtown loop, ODOT assumed during design that various freeway-freeway interchanges would have mostly exiting traffic, so there are only four continuous through lanes under the I-70 interchanges. These will no doubt have to be reconstructed at some point. There is also an extended continuous C/D section on parts of the northeast side. I-465 has an eight lane segment from I-70 east to I-69. There is also a small eight lane segment from 71st St. to 86th St. There are no remaining four lane sections. The interchange at I-465 and I-865 does go down to four lanes through the limits of that interchange.

The beltway is the new Main St. in both cities. With the bulk of all growth occurring outside of it, both cities/states are going to be forced to spend a lot of money upgrading these routes.

Columbus is bisected by two interstates: I-70 and I-71. It also has state highways that are of freeway classification that radiate outward from the beltway, including US 33 to the northwest, and SR 161 to the northeast. US 33 to the southeast is being slowly upgraded to freeway status. Indianapolis is intersected by four interstates: I-65, I-69 (terminates at Indianapolis), I-70, and I-74. This gives it seven external spoke routes vs. six in Columbus, with all of them being interstate highways.

In Columbus, I-71 north is six lanes to Delware, about 12 miles beyond the arc. SR 161 is under construction to six lanes. I-70 to the east is six lanes for about three miles. I-71 to the south does not have any six lane or better section outside the loop. I-70 to the east is six lanes for about 27 miles outside the loop, representing the most improved segment of road. US 33 to the northwest in Dublin is four lanes.

In Indianapolis, I-69 is six lanes for five miles outside the loop. I-70 east is six lanes for about one mile outside the loop. I-74 to the southeast is four lanes its entire length. I-65 to the south is six lanes for seven miles outside the loop. I-70 west is six lanes for seven miles outside the loop. I-74 to the northwest is four lanes its entire length. I-65 to the northwest is four lanes its entire length.

With the exception of I-70 to the west in Columbus, the two exterior spoke systems seem broadly comparable in terms of width. However, Columbus only has four interstate spokes, while Indianapolis has seven. What’s more, Indianapolis sits at the intersection of two major interstates – I-65 and I-70 – while Columbus is only on one. Indianapolis is famous for having about the best interstate connectivity of any city in the US – only Atlanta is comparable or better – and this represents a key advantage for the city. It should be noted that both places appear to have similar thriving distribution industries, so this advantage has not yet manifested itself tangibly.

I think it is always difficult to get a real, objective, apples-to-apples way of comparing congestion. So I will give a purely subjective view. I’ve driven in both places, but far more in Indianapolis. My impression of Indianapolis is that it has some of the lowest freeway congestion anywhere I’ve driven. This is starting to change, with I-69 choked up a good period each day as well as routine backups on I-465 west of there. But so far it is hanging in there. Columbus also seems to have reasonable congestion levels with a couple of exceptions. The inner loop is highly congested. I’ve seen backups there as late as 10am (or anytime really, I’d suspect). I’ve also seen a lot of congestion on I-70 to the west backing up onto I-270 south. Both Indy and Columbus seem to have a lot of congestion driven by an inability to channel traffic off of the freeway fast enough at key points, with traffic backing up on off ramps onto the freeway itself, causing congestion.

Both cities have fairly ambitious freeway improvements laid out in their long range plans. But I am a believer in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” school of road construction. So I don’t consider those plans worthwhile to compare at this point.

I hope you found this comparison interesting and of use.

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Project Review: I-465 Northwest Fast Track

INDOT recently completed work on its I-465 Northwest Fast Track project. I presume that the “fast track” phrase refers to the time from concept to ground breaking, not the actual construction time, since it took three years to rebuild just two miles of road, including 18 months each for the interchanges, hardly a rapid schedule.

But beyond the construction duration, there isn’t a lot to complain about on this project. Overall it is a solid success in every way, including capacity, pedestrian/bicycle accommodation, and aesthetically. In fact, I would recommend this project as a potential template for how the rest of I-465 and area freeways should be reconstructed.

In brief, the project consisted of:

  • Reconstruction and widening of I-465 from six lanes to eight lanes on the northwest side of the Indianapolis from 71st St. to 86th St., with two auxiliary lanes each direction between those interchanges.
  • Replacement of the 79th St. bridge over I-465
  • Redesigning and reconstructing the interchanges at 71st and 86th Sts.
  • Adding an auxiliary lane in each direction between I-65 and 71st St.

From a capacity standpoint, this road was not in bad shape to start with. The interchanges probably needed work, and so it made sense to do the mainline at the same time. Also, by doing it now, the work gets completed prior to the start of the major I-465 west leg project to the south. I’ve dinged INDOT for only adding minimum capacity during widening projects. That’s also the case here. However, it is defensible here because this is not one of the higher volume segments of I-465. Eight lanes will work for quite some time into the future. What’s more, there’s no real constraint to widening the road further in the future. Just add a lane on the overpasses at 71st and 86th, redesignate one of the auxiliary lanes as mainline, and you are done. If even more drastic expansion were ever needed, there’s plenty of room and the worst thing that happens is you need to replace the 79th St. bridge again.

INDOT certainly did not skimp on capacity of the interchanges. Both 71st and 86th were reconstructed under the expressway to provide three lanes in each direction plus additional turn lanes. The offramps were widened. And the onramp system was redesigned to permit free flowing traffic onto the expressway in most directions. Only the movements from eastbound 71st/86th to northbound I-465 require a signalized left turns. The movements from westbound 71st/86th to southbound I-465, which are of much higher volume, were replaced with dual loop ramps. Both of these onramps are isolated from the mainline of I-465 by jersey barriers, and the ramps transition to become the auxiliary lanes. On 71st St, the northbound exit ramp from I-465 has a dedicated ramp over 71st St to reach 73rd St, which will eliminate the need for a large number of cars to turn right, cross several lanes of traffic, then turn left again.

So while nominally these interchanges went from simple diamonds to diamonds with a one movement receiving a loop ramp, the capacity has been significantly increased all around. The interchanges are going to be able to pump through a huge number of cars. It just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need a spaghetti bowl of ramps to provide high capacity. INDOT did not skimp in any way in these interchanges, and it shows in the end product. If the remaining west side interchange projects end up like this, there will be quite an improvement indeed.

Also noteworthy is that 71st, 79th, and 86th all received a pedestrian/bicycle path along one side of the road. I’m usually a believer in having sidewalks or paths on both sides of the road, and in the case of 79th I would have liked to have seen it. But on 71st and 86th it is again a defensible move to only include one side, in this case the south. On the north side, there are two free flowing ramps that would not necessarily provide a safe pedestrian crossing. And let’s face it, neither of these interchanges has a large volume of pedestrian or bicycle traffic. On the south side of these interchanges there is one free flowing onramp, but INDOT actually provides a tunnel under it to permit the safe passage of pedestrians. So a pedestrian or cyclist only has to cross one set of ramps, the offramp from northbound I-465, which is signalized (including pedestrian signals). The width of the overall path is very nice. The one thing I’d suggest is that INDOT put up a sign indicating that the path leads through a tunnel. When you cross under the interstate, you see the path curve off to the left as if it will parallel I-465, but the tunnel isn’t necessarily visible. A small sign might keep pedestrians from crossing directly across the landscaping.

Speaking of landscaping, these interchanges have it. That’s just one component of an overall pleasing visual design. I’m not going to say that these interchanges are architecturally significant or anything like that. (I actually do think there’s no reason not to consult an architect for these type of projects, however). But they do look nice, have some interesting decorative elements, and are light years ahead of typical interchanges. The bottom line is that INDOT spent money to make these look good, and that’s something they should feel good about.

I’ll share some of the appearance of these interchanges via some photos.

The first thing you’ll notice is a decorative metal railing on the bridges. Here is one on the 86th St. bridge over I-465 as seen from the west.

A hard core modernist would likely despise these decorations, which mimic structural elements to bring out echoes of metal arch bridges. But despite my own modernist leanings, I like them. The brown color is a nice touch. It’s much better than nuclear blue I can tell you that. Also, the curving shape is a suggestive of a circle motif without being too obvious, a very nice touch.

You also will note the texturing on the concrete panels along the edges and the trees in a rectangular raised planter. All nice and again way better than the typical plain hexagonal panels you often see. The planters bring a touch of formalistic design the landscaping that those who’ve been reading this blog know I am an advocate of.

Here’s a closer look at the metal railing. (Note: all of these pictures are from the 86th St. interchange – click the picture to see full sized).

Here’s a closer look at the landscaping.

Here are the edge treatments on the concrete panels under the bridge. Note the use of both multiple textures and colors, as well as the arc which echoes the metal railing and again echoes a circle motif. All good.

Sorry about the glare in that one.

71st St. has an almost identical design. The 79th St. bridge is particularly striking since it passed over I-465, making it visible from the expressway. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a good photo of it, but I do think it looks nice.

I mentioned the pedestrian and bicycle tunnel earlier. Here’s a picture.

There is one major aesthetic downside to the project, and that is the use of this monstrosity.

Tower lighting has no business in an urban interchange like this. It ought to be keeping the truck stops company out in the middle of nowhere. Better is the use of more human scale and less visually polluting individual light standards. In fact, INDOT did use some of those on the project too, and here’s an example:

This is the southbound exit ramp by the way.

There are other states that do exactly what I suggest, so I know it can be done. I’ve always thought lighting design was one of the weakest links in the INDOT’s chain, and this only reinforces my thinking.

The other item I’m not sold on is the superstructures used to support the big green signs (BGS’s). Here’s a picture:

I see where they were going with this, trying to include the same gentle arch motif, but these end up looking 70’s retro instead, and not in a good way. In fact, I’m really not much of a fan of BGS’s on surface streets at all. Lots of cities and states avoid their visual blight in favor of just using interstate shield signs with directional arrows mounted on the side of the roads. I don’t notice a disproportionate number of lost and confused people in those areas. Ditch the BGS’s, or at a minimum paint those mountings the same brown color as the decorative bridge railings.

The lighting and signage blips shouldn’t be allowed to overly detract from the project, however. The I-465 Northwest Fast Track project is the best looking INDOT has ever done in Indianapolis, and one of the absolute best ever in the state.

In fact, I believe that this project should be used as a sort of design template for the rest of the Indianapolis expressway system. It’s not that I think it’s perfect or there’s no way to do something better, but it is very good. What’s more, I’ve long argued Indianapolis needs to develop a distinct visual identity. By having interchanges with a unique design, and one that incorporates a circle type motif to boot, this reinforces the sense of place.

I understand that the rest of the west leg of I-465 was designed to a higher aesthetic standard as well. I’m not sure if it uses this design or not. But if it uses a different one, and that is as good or close to (or better even) than this one, then perhaps that would make a better standard since it does include so many more interchanges. I also hope that the “don’t skimp” design philosophy was followed on those designs as well, though I know at certain points the answer is, also, that it wasn’t (see I-70).

It won’t be long before we find out because in a bit of bonus good news, it appears that the west leg construction is actually underway, with some orange barrels and a bit of dirt moving at 38th St.

Overall INDOT should be very pleased with themselves apart from the tower lighting and the long construction schedule. This is a high capacity, good looking project that is almost everything you’d want in a project at that part of the city.

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