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.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

4 Responses to “Project Review: I-465 Northwest Fast Track”

  1. Anonymous says:

    As a daily traveler along 86th St., I feel that one big green sign is necessary to alert travelers to the loop on ramp. Before the sign was erected, I saw a lot of U-turns and people trying to attempt to turn left onto 465. So I think in those particular cases it is necessary because it is a different style of on ramp.

    If the other interchanges on the west side are designed to this or a higher standard, that will do a lot for distinguishing the city. The biggest events in town are at the Speedway, so we get the biggest exposure on the west side with the influx of traffic for race events.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that this could make an impression on visitors coming for events at the Speedway.

    I think some of the driver confusion you note is because the interchange configuration changed with the new project. You did used to have to turn left. So perhaps some short term signage would have been helpful.

  3. Steve says:

    Great posts, as always. I often wonder how do you always get the latest and greatest info about the ongoing projects around Indy and Carmel.

    I always go to your blogs to find out consolidated information about what’s going since you got all the best information gathered from all over the places. I just wish INDOT or city website would be as generous to give information to the public.

    Keep up the great work!

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Steve, thanks for reading and for the nice words.

    There area a few ways to get information for Indianapolis projects. I don’t have any proprietary sources and rely almost exclusively on public domain knowledge such as:

    – Indy Star
    – IBJ (see their Property Lines blog too)
    – INDOT
    – Indy MPO
    – Indy DPW
    – Indy Downtown Inc.
    – forums
    – Other blogs

    And for places like Carmel, just drive around and see the action.

    If you have specific questions or want to know about particular projects, you can always try the public relations office of the agency in question. I have found that local government officials and even department heads are very willing to spend time talking to the public to explain things and so share documents. I’ve never had any outright resistance to helping me with my requests, and this coming from someone who has been quite critical of a number of projects. So don’t hesistate to make a call.

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