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.