Sunday, August 12th, 2007
This is part two of my review. Before reading, you might want to read part one, which includes an overview of the project as well covering the portions of it I think are very good. This topic, which focuses on the negative aspects of the project, should be seen in the context of something that appears to be overall excellent, with about 80% of the project consisting of elements with which I have no complaints.
So what is wrong with it? There are three primary problems:
- The design of the I-70 and Kentucky Ave. interchanges. This is the most serious deficiency and action is urgently needed to keep a travesty from coming to pass here.
- The gap created by excluding the I-65 interchange.
- The lengthy construction schedule.
Let’s get right to the worst part, the I-70 interchange design. When looking at things like I-69 in Fishers or the Allisonville Rd. interchange, it is tempting to look back and say, well, the road is carrying vastly more traffic than anticipated. The engineers back then had no way of knowing the growth that would occur. But is that actually true? The design of this interchange gives me pause, because it is very clear that INDOT knows exactly what to do, they’ve just chosen not to do it.
A bit of history is in order. This project was originally designed to stretch from Kentucky Ave to just south of 56th St. Sometime during the project, the projects was downsized, and the Kentucky Ave. interchange was dropped from the project entirely, and the proposal at I-70 was significantly downgraded. INDOT had already done a lot of planning work an identified a solution that did a pretty good job of dealing with this very complex interchange. As with the I-74/Crawfordsville Rd. situation, we’re dealing with fairly closely spaced interchanged. What’s more, I-70, unlike I-74, is a through route and is one of the handful of major transcontinental interstates. And the main entrance from the airport is being shifted from I-465 to I-70, which will produce even more traffic. Here’s the solution INDOT came up with to redesign I-70:
This is a truly first class design. It converts Kentucky Ave. to a partial cloverleaf. I’m not sure how they did this with the railroad, which perhaps they anticipate relocating or abandonment. (There was an alternative design that was very similar, but left the railroad intact, so the presence of the railroad is not an excuse for downgrading the design). Traffic to and from Kentucky Ave., I-70, and I-465 is separated to avoid weaving and to eliminate the big problem that exists today with traffic exiting at Kentucky backing up onto the freeway and affecting operations on the I-70 on ramp. The loop ramps at I-70 are replaced with high capacity flyovers. This is similar to what INDOT did on the east side, and you know how well that worked. There is only one loop ramp remaining, from southbound I-465 to inbound I-70, but that is ok because as I noted earlier, most traffic is savvy enough to take the shortcut via Airport Expressway, so this is not a high volume ramp. If this were to be built, I would rate it grade A. It would be the second best interchange of the lot after the magnificent job at I-74.
Unfortunately, this is not what INDOT is planning to build. Sometime during the environmental process, in the dead of night so to speak, when no one was looking, INDOT decided to eliminate this proposal in favor of something far, far worse. I’m sure this went through the typical inter-agency cooridination process, but to the best of my knowledge, this downgrade has never been presented to the public. This should have been on the front page of the Indianapolis Star as it is a critical transportation decision, but I never saw any coverage of it. Indeed, I discovered it myself when reviewing the project web site one day and INDOT had relegated this to the design of “rejected alternative”.
Here is what INDOT now plans to build:
This is quite a difference as you can see. At Kentucky Ave. they are doing, well, nothing. The interchange has been completely removed from scope. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a concern as you could always do it later, but since this is so tightly linked to the I-70 interchange, necessitating an integrated design, this might be difficult.
On the I-70 interchange itself, you can see that a key flyover ramp has been removed in favor of maintaining two loop ramps with a C/D lane isolating them similar to what was done at the far lower volume Airport Expressway interchange.
The worst part of this isn’t immediately obvious, but if you look closely, you’ll see that I-465 is eight mainline lanes in the original plan and six mainline lanes in the new design. That’s right, INDOT isn’t even widening the road, and it isn’t clear that they are even leaving room to do so. (I don’t know definitively, but their design of the 56th St. bridge on the east side does not inspire confidence).
I wrote to the consultant, HNTB corporation, questioning this and here is what they told me regarding this interchange. I will reproduce it here so that you can hear their defense in their own words. As public correspondence on these studies is typically placed into the public record, I don’t believe I’m betraying any confidences.
Q2. Combined with the SR 67 closure [I had originally believed they might be closing Kentucky Ave. entirely], the I-70 design also appears to have been downgraded with the removal of a flyover ramp and braided structures to SR 67. Why was the original alterative dismissed in favor of a lower capacity, lower access design?
A. In an effort to reduce cost and not to interfere with the proposed airport construction, the design of this interchange was modified to accommodate the newer (proposed) traffic patterns. It should also be noted that the design of this area is pending final design approval based on the newer airport roadway designs. The revised I-70 alternative does not reduce the interchange capacity and or traffic operations. The desired level of services will be met utilizing the less expensive loop ramp versus the semi-direct fly ramp as shown in the original design concept. The interchange at SR 67/Kentucky Avenue was deferred due to uncertainty of the impacts associated with the I-69 project. The current SR 67/Kentucky Avenue interchange will remain open and will operate as it does today until the impacts associated with I-67 have been fully studied.
I think it is pretty easy to parse this. They changed the design in order to save money. This is a classic design to budget project. They basically told they had to cut scope to keep the project on budget. Now this was all before Major Moves, which should have provided an opportunity to revisit this, but that never happened. When I complain that INDOT designs to budget instead of fixing problems right, this is Exhibit A in what I mean. What’s more, the new design still isn’t cheap. I don’t mind low cost band aid or interim solutions if you can’t afford to do the right thing now. But too often we get the worst of both worlds: an expensive solution that doesn’t fix the problem. This fits the bill perfectly.
Again, I’m particularly distressed that this received very little publicity locally and was so low-key. If this had been on the front page of the Indy Star, would it have gone forward? I don’t know, but you can believe it would have gotten a lot more scrutiny.
Note, by the way, that nothing in their plans has actually changed, despite assurances that things would be revisited. Clearly, no revisiting has occurred.
So in 20 years (or probably even less), when this area remains congested, don’t let transport officials off the hook. They are making an explicit decision not to fix the problem. They already know what the fix is, planned to implement it, and decided against it based on what I personally to believe to be purely a cost decision.
Let me stress that I don’t per se blame the engineers on this. They do what the customer wants. And if the customer, in this case the INDOT brass, tell them they’ve got to redo things to a low cost design, that’s what they’ve got to do.
It’s actually not too late to change this. The I-70 interchange is not scheduled to being until 2009. If local business and governmental leaders decided to step up and demand that the original design be implemented, there’s no reason it can’t be. (Of course, we know what INDOT will say already: there’s no way to get the original design completed before the new airport terminal opens, so you are stuck with what they want to do know – in the face of a public that is not educated in these matters, it is easy to get snowed by someone who sounds authoritative). Launch a design/build project right now and it could be completed on the same schedule as INDOT’s new design. Look how fast MnDOT plans to rebuild that bridge over the Mississippi starting with zero. INDOT is way ahead of the game, with a first class preliminary design already in place. INDOT got a check for $3.4 billion in cash after this decision was made. In light of all that new money, the design should be revisited.
Of course the odds of anything like this happening are remote. I’ve yet to see one bad transportation decision overturned around Indianapolis. I doubt there is going to be any rock the boat criticism, just as their isn’t on any of the bad architecture that is routinely implemented. This is why other cities will continue to outpace Indy in the infrastructure race.
Moving on to point #2, this project is designed to stop at 56th St. and not touch that interchange. As with I-70/Kentucky Ave and I-74/Crawfordsville Rd., 56th St. is so close to I-65 that those interchanges are linked. With the I-465 fast track project north of I-65 and this project south of it, there is now a gap in the roadway fabric at the I-65/56th St. interchange. What’s more, that interchange has some problems, such as a lack of fully directional access at 56th St., a left hand exit, and a loop ramp from I-465 south to inbound I-65 that would ideally not be a loop. It wouldn’t make any sense for I-465 to go from eight lanes to six back to eight. I’m sure some temporary pavement can create a basic fourth lane to bridge the gap, and that’s likely want INDOT will do, but I’d like to see this interchange at least on the drawing board. Right now it is not part of the Major Moves program, meaning it is minimum ten years away. I’m not even aware that any planning studies are going on regarding this.
There’s nothing that is being done that prevents this from being upgraded, which is a good thing. It’s not like the Kentucky Ave. situation. It is simply a matter of time and money. Given that the rest of the west leg will be done soon, it seems to me this should move up on the regional priority list.
My last point relates to the schedule of the project. This is supposed to be a six year project. Construction started this year and won’t be done until 2012. Six years to do 11 miles of roadway is ridiculous. I understand that because this involves complex interchange reconfigurations, this isn’t something that can be done in a year as pure rehab projects like Super 70 can. But there has got to be a better way. In fact, there was a better way. INDOT had been studying how to pull this off in three years and I believe they decided they could do it. This fell by the wayside however, and doing it fast – and thus saving years of motorist pain – appears to have been completely ignored as a design principle. I don’t know why, but if I had to hazard a guess, I think the odds are strongly in favor of cost savings as the overriding principle. This is really just a cost shift, not a savings, from the state budget to the motoring public. In fact, the studies used to justify projects like Hyperfix showed that there is a huge dollar value attached to user savings from doing things fast that outweighs the cost of the increased project expense. So this is likely a real cost increase. It just doesn’t show up on INDOT’s ledger.
In summary, the I-465 west leg project is, with the notable exceptions of the I-70/Kentucky Ave. interchanges and the schedule, what appears to be a first class project that will pay dividends to the city and region for decades to come. I believe that, again with those notable exceptions, it strikes a reasonable balance between cost, public impact, and capacity, and appears to be trending towards a good pedestrian/bicycle friendly design and good aesthetics to boot. I hope it lives up to its promise.
Alas, the I-70 interchange decision mars the project significantly, and will be something the Central Indiana region is likely to regret for decades to come. Unfortunately, the cost of these bad decisions does not manifest itself immediately and by the time it does, those responsible will be long gone. I can only hope that someone with influence – which, as you may have gathered by now, I am not – reads this and performs an emergency intervention on the project and save the city from another northeast side mess down the road.
Sunday, August 12th, 2007
On the heels of the very successful I-465 northwest fast track project that upgraded a short segment of that highway from 71st St. to 86th St., INDOT is kicking off a six year project to redesign, reconstruct, and widen 11 miles of I-465 on the west side. INDOT has a project web site for this, but it appears rather stagnant.
Now that work is officially underway on this project at 38th St., it is worth taking a look at what INDOT has done on this project. On the whole, I think it is shaping up to be another excellent project, with one interchange I find particularly successful. This comment applies to about 80% of the project. There is, alas, another 20% that is seriously deficient. This post will focus on the good stuff, and I’ll post a subsequent post on the bad.
I-465 on the west side was one of the earliest segments of the highway to be built. I believe it was originally actually built as four lanes, but was shortly widened to six. Like many INDOT suburban expressway, this one was built with minimal ROW, substantially complicating an upgrade. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think gigantic ROW’s through an urban area are necessarily a good idea, but they definitely come with their downsides. The good news is that INDOT has a number of closely spaced interchanges to provide real local access to the west side. This isn’t a highway like I-70 on the east side, with widely spaced interchanges that simply is a huge great wall through neighborhoods that it harms and does not serve. This section of I-465 is not like that. But that comes with a downside of weaving traffic and less operational efficiency. What’s more, INDOT used a lot of full cloverleaf interchanges, which are less widely used today because of the weaving traffic they generate. Finally, enormous growth on the west side, especially in Hendricks County, has been pumping large amounts of traffic into I-465. If transportation officials are able to secure the funding to upgrade routes like 10th St. and Rockville Rd., the traffic levels hitting I-465 will expand proportionally.
To to summarize, pavement age, lack of capacity for the future, and inefficient interchange designs, along with some design standards issues, have led INDOT to completely redesign the roadway to improve things. The total project cost is around $400 million.
The first point to consider is the average cross-section of I-465. Today it is a six lane roadway. There were two basic designs considered by INDOT: an 8+2 cross section with four mainline lanes in each direction plus an auxiliary lane between interchanges, or a 10 lane cross section with five mainline lanes in each direction and no auxiliary lanes. A study of a 10+2, possibly the “ideal” cross-section, was not undertaken as near as I can tell.
Let’s be blunt here. INDOT is spending $400 million to add only one lane in each direction. This is the minimum possible widening. I’ve been highly critical of this in the past, and especially critical of how INDOT mis-represents this to the public by counting auxiliary lanes as mainline lanes when they manfestly are not. However, in this case, I do feel INDOT has made a reasonable tradeoff. With the number of homes and other buildings close to the freeway and the narrow ROW available, expansion beyond eight lanes would have been very costly and very damaging to the neighborhoods. This project is already causing a significant number of residential relocations. Clearly, minimizing this is a good goal. So if 10+2 if not realistic, 8+2 is probably a better choice than 10+0, because of the closely spaced interchanges and weaving traffic that results. So while this minimalist approach has been something I’ve not been happy with in the past, particularly on the northeast side, I think all things considered it was probably the right approach here. I’ll assign a Capacity grade of B.
Moving on to the interchanges, it appears to me that with most of them INDOT has gone with the same approach that it took at 71st St. and 86th St. Namely, these are going to be very high capacity, and represent a major, major improvement. What’s more, it appears that a lot of work went into the aesthetics and pedestrian/bicycle access. Unfortunately, the details available on the web here are extremely sketchy and I haven’t had the leisure to track this down with INDOT, but it sounds like they really did a lot of excellent work in terms of working with the neighborhoods and putting in great design elements. For example, most of the bridges are supposed to include “pedestrian promenades” to safely carry pedestrians and bicyclists across the freeway. Even if the project only lives up to the northwest fast track standards, it will be great. And I’ve got an inkling from what I’ve read that it might be even better. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I do hope they keep with a consistent design language to build a signature look for the city. The few renderings that are available don’t show this, however. When it comes to aesthetics, I’ll have to assign the entire project a grade of Incomplete because I just don’t know enough to make an assessment yet. But as I said, what I’ve seen makes me hopeful.
I’ll cover the interchanges north to south. The project starts just south of 56th St. but does not include that interchange. The 46th St. bridge is being replaced. The first interchange you come to is 38th St. The existing interchange is a diamond with one loop ramp. Here is the target configuration. Click for a higher resolution version. Note that INDOT’s web side for the project has super-high res images if you want to see them. Those are useful for reviewing fine detail.
Note the partial cloverleaf design. This is INDOT’s new favored design. Traffic exiting the freeway must stop at a signal on 38th. Traffic onto the freeway is free flowing in all directions. This does lead to stop lights, but with the benefit of eliminating weaving traffic on the freeway. This is a high capacity design. While it doesn’t look that different from today, I think it will be an improvement. Grade: A-
By the way, this rendering shows what I mean by an 8+2 design. There are four mainline lanes, but there is an extra auxiliary lane between interchanges as the onramp for one interchange continues through to be the offramp of the next interchange. This gives traffic plenty of time to merge in and out, without tight weaving distances.
Moving south, the 34th St. bridge will be replaced. Then comes perhaps the most complex interchange jumble on all of I-465. I-74 comes in from the west as a freeway, then while I-74 is routed as a multiplex around the south side of I-465, the roadway continues straight towards the Speedway as Crawfordsville Rd. The US 136 portion of Crawfordsville, which extends beyond I-465 and parallels I-74, crosses under I-465 and comes into a signalized intersection at High School Rd. The current interchange is a full cloverleaf, with that very closely spaced signal at High School Rd. What’s more, while traffic has currently been modest on I-74, with big growth in Brownsburg and even Pittsboro, along with a new interchange on I-74 at Ronald Reagan Parkway, traffic looks set to significantly grow.
So what was INDOT to do? A partial cloverleaf is not an option here. This is a freeway-freeway interchange, so stoplights are not acceptable. The solution they came up with is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if this has been done elsewhere, but it is not a standard design and since I’m not aware of someplace else it exists, I’m going to give INDOT the benefit of the doubt on being innovative here. Here’s the rendering:
This is a little tough to decipher at first, but let me tell you want is going on. I-74 and Crawfordsville are no long through routed. You can see the old Crawfordsville in the photo and the new Crawfordsville in yellow. So now Crawfordsville is a through route under I-465, and I-74 effectivenely does a merge/split with I-465. This eliminates one big problem, which is the tightly spaced stoplight. Anyone coming in on I-74 no longer faces a stoplight, or any potential stoplight related backups, because you can’t get to a stoplight unless you explicitly exit to Crawfordsville.
Next, because Crawfordsville and I-74 have been separated, the interchanges have been separated. There are really two interchanges, here, with interconnected ramps. One is a simple diamond at Crawfordsville. Northbound from I-465 you easily see the separate exit ramp for Crawfordsville. Southbound from I-465, there is also a separate ramp that goes under I-74. An exit ramp from I-74 merges with this before hitting the signal at Crawfordsville. Traffic heading from Crawfordsville behaves similarly. INDOT has separated local traffic from freeway traffic while maintaining full access to Crawfordsville from all directions. This is a major accomplishment. The only downside is that the tight diamond design, which is effectively mandated by the tight spacing, will experience capacity constraints at certain peak traffic times. I’m thinking notably races at the Speedway. But apart from special events traffic, this should be adequate, depending on the volume of turn lanes, which is not explicit in this drawing. I hope INDOT makes it a fairly high capacity diamond.
With I-74 INDOT has accomplished something they’ve never done anywhere else to the best of my knowledge: they’ve completely eliminated loop ramps and other bogus features such as left hand ramps on a freeway-freeway interchange. Admittedly, this is more of a merge/split than a true freeway-freeway interchange such as I-465 and I-70, but let’s not diminish the accomplishment. This is very close to a design I previous advocated to INDOT for this interchange, namely a “four-level stack” interchange. These are expensive to build, no doubt, but they are the highest capacity design and most ROW efficient design for freeway-freeway interchanges. Here’s a picture of a true four-level stack from Houston, Texas:
The I-74 design is similar, except it has fewer directions to move traffic. Also, the ramp from inbound I-74 to northbound I-465 sweeps around like a traditional INDOT directional ramp. This avoids having to build a tall multi-level bridge structure, but the ROW was in place so they took it. INDOT also includes dual lane ramps to/from I-74 inbound and I-465 southbound, presumably the highest volume movement. This is going to move a lot of cars at high speeds through that interchange and should be a joy for motorists to drive.
I think this is one of INDOT’s best interchanges ever, and if it works as well in practice as it looks on paper, they should win some design awards for it. Grade: A+
Moving south, the 21st St. bridge will be replaced. Then comes the 10th St. interchange. Here is a rendering:
This is diamond with a single loop ramp. That weird flyover ramp and squashed loop ramp are being eliminated. The “ideal” design for this interchange is probably a partial cloverleaf like 38th. However, note the neighborhood in the northwest quadrant where the other loop ramp would go. Building it would require wiping out a good chunk of that. Plus, like 71st St. and 86th St., this is an “unbalanced” interchange, with the majority of the I-465 bound traffic coming in from the west. The westbound to southbound movement is probably lower volume. IN that light, I think INDOT did a solid job with this. Grade: B
Moving south comes Rockville Rd. This is a similar design to 10th St.
The constraint on building a second loop ramp here is less a neighborhood than the tight spacing with the High School Rd. intersection, which constrains things. This interchange also has significantly unbalanced flow as it is the primary route into the freeway from Avon and Danville. I think this one will do fine. Grade: B
The next interchange is Washington St.
With no neighborhoods, no tightly spaced intersections, and a more balanced traffic flow, INDOT was able to go with the partial cloverleaf design. I do find it interesting that they are actually making the loop ramps smaller, which should reduce their design speed. I’m not sure of the rationale for that. Grade: B+
The next interchange is Airport Expressway, soon to be renamed Sam Jones Expressway as the airport terminal is relocated to a new exit off I-70.
This one presents an interesting challenge. It is another freeway-freeway interchange, so a partial cloverleaf is not feasible. It is also the preferred route for freeway traffic to reach downtown from the north. Going all the way to I-70 takes you out of the way. Airport Expressway is a short cut spur that links to I-465 to I-70 east more directly. With the airport terminal closing, one can also expect this to become an extremely unbalanced interchange, with much less traffic to the west.
What INDOT did was to leave this mostly as it was, with three loop ramps and a flyover. There were two improvements made. One was to isolate the two loop ramps on the east side of I-465 from the mainline with a separated collector/distributor lane. This keeps the tight weaving traffic from affecting I-465 and is now the standard design when doing full cloverleaf type operations. It also re-aligned the eastbound lanes of Airport Expressway to the south. This was a nicely done move as it creates and extended weaving area for the loop ramps that should improve safety. Grade: A-
This is the last of good elements to highlight. As you can see, this is the bulk of the interchanges. In part two, I’ll cover the negative.
Saturday, August 4th, 2007
It is looking more and more likely that the City Center Mall in Columbus is facing its last days. The city of Columbus has filed suit seeking to evict the Mall’s operators. Their cause of action is a failure to pay $200,000 in rent.
City Center Mall appears to have one of those overly complex structures that downtown projects are famous for. The city apparently owns the site and has a ground lease with a company called TL-Columbus Associates. The Mall is in turn operated by Indianapolis based Simon Property Group, which acquired the rights when it bought the bankrupt Mills Corp. Simon expressed surprise about the lawsuit, saying that they had been in advanced negotiations to sell the mall to a group of local developers, including Don M. Casto III. For its part the city says that it was blindsided by Simon’s failure to pay rent. The city desires to lease the site to Nationwide Realty, part of the insurance group and the force behind the successful arena district. If I were to speculate, this move by the city indicates they didn’t like the team that Simon was looking to sell to, and intervened to try to insure their favored group got the nod.
Not everyone is happy about this. Simon is the biggest mall developer in the country, and Casto has deep pockets as well. Some suggest bringing Simon on board instead of alienating them might have been a better move. Simon’s experience with the more successful Circle Centre project in Indianapolis shows that they do has some track record with successful downtown retail in a city like Columbus.
It strikes me as likely that the city will end up with control of the site. It also very much looks like the Mall will not survive in its current form. The president of Nationwide Realty said it would likely be some sort of a combination of shops, officies, and residences. The managing director of the Polaris Chamber of Commerce says he can’t imagine any reuse that doesn’t involve demolishing most of the mall.
We’ll have to see what happens. A retrospective on the mall’s failure would be an interesting case study. I’m not close enough to it to be able to offer anything definitive. But I’d suggest a couple of points, some of which I highlighted earlier when comparing this to the Indianapolis situation.
The first is that the enclosed Mall is no longer the favored retail format. Today “lifestyle centers” are the rage, and you aren’t seeing a lot of new enclosed malls built. In fact, many existing enclosed malls are now adopting lifestyle center type components, and some are even demolishing anchors to make way for them.
Also, another key trend is blending higher end dining and entertainment with shopping. Circle Centre in Indy had numerous upscale restaurants and became the focus of a major dining district downtown. City Center did not.
City Center also struggled because Columbus built a number of brand new suburban shopping malls like Tuttle Creek and Polaris after City Center opened. The 90’s saw a veritable boom in enclosed mall building there, perhaps representing the last great enclosed mall expansion nationally. Contrast with Indy where all of the suburban malls were long established, and thus somewhat dowdy and down at the heels when Circle Centre opened. Even today, Circle Centre is the newest enclosed mall in the city, while City Center in Columbus is one of the oldest. That’s a big difference.
Also, the location south of the core of downtown hurt the Mall. With the Arena District, Convention Center, and reborn Short North all north of downtown, the center of gravity, particularly for visitors and entertainment, shifted to the north, leaving City Center out in the cold. Had it been located next to the convention center, I believe it would have been a very different story.
The failure of City Center is going to put a crimp in downtown Columbus retail for a long time. That seems to be the most difficult component to get to work. Basically, cities the size of Columbus don’t have enough upscale downtown population to make significant retail work, and the won’t have it any time soon. Even 2,000 or 3,000 condos wouldn’t be enough to create a base to support a mall. Downtown retail failed in Louisville (the Galleria) and appears to be failing in Cincinnati as well (Carew Tower Mall). Even Circle Centre has some serious cracks in the facade if you ask me, and I believe it will suffer significant struggles over the coming years. It is not beyond question that it could suffer City Center’s fate. For Columbus, downtown dining and entertainment, along with more mixed use complexes, appears to be the best bet for now.