Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Thoughts From a Trip to Bloomington

So this weekend was Homecoming my alma mater, old IU. I’m not a big fan of college football and it had probably been five years since I set foot in Bloomington. But as several old college friends applied various degrees of arm twisting, I decided to make the drive down SR 37.

That itself is a bit different for me. My usual route to Bloomington is via SR 67. But I wanted to check out the future I-69 route. My trip showed me why I normally go the other way. Although it was 7:30pm, it took me about 15-20 minutes to get through Martinsville. There were extremely lengthy delays at multiple stoplights. Clearly, this is some of the worst traffic anywhere in Indiana. I’m an I-69 skeptic, but no study – even the ones done back in the day before I-69 became overly politicized – ever disputed the need to upgrade SR 37 from Martinsville to Indianapolis. Indeed, I’d rank the upgrading of SR 37 in the vicinity of Martinsville is one of the absolute top priorities in the state.

When Ohio upgrades a route like SR 37, which they are doing to the southeast part of the state, for example, they actually start not at one end but rather by building or upgrading bypasses of towns along they way. This gets a lot of bang for the buck quickly. Indeed, that’s what INDOT is doing with US 31 by upgrading three targeted high congestion segments quickly, then looking to fill in the gaps later. In fact, if INDOT freewayed US 31 to 236th St., then built an interchange at SR 28 in Tipton County, then when these projects were done the road would be almost as good as a freeway from Indy to South Bend. Similarly, INDOT could give huge benefits to the “future I-69” route quickly by upgrading the Martinsville bypass. Instead, it is planning to start with a new terrain segment from Evansville to Crane. Again, transportation need isn’t the logic here. Rather, I’d suspect the real goal of this segment is to start construction on the new terrain route as quickly as possible in order to make that route a fait accompli. The logic is likely that once that route starts construction, it would be almost impossible to abandon the I-69 concept. By contrast, a Martinsville bypass has independent utility, and thus doesn’t bias the outcome. $700 million to build a route with extremely light forecasted traffic versus nothing to upgrade an extremely congested segment elsewhere. This just goes to show how the politicizaton of I-69 has affected the transportation planning process.

Bloomington is of course one of the most wonderful towns in Indiana. IU is one of the best college campuses I’ve ever been to. Downtown, likely because of the university, is still thriving. Indeed, there has been a lot of development downtown, including a number of higher density structures that I’m sure were not without controversy. (Indeed, one of my old WFIU colleagues that I visited there briefly was pretty down on them). There are plenty of places to eat, hear live music, etc.

Of course, not all is well in Bloomington. Outside of the core campus area and downtown, it is similar to most other Indiana towns. Bloomington is not that different from, say, Anderson in that it was a town whose economy apart from the university was heavily based on manufacturing, with companies like RCA, GE, and Otis Elevator employing thousands. Most of those jobs are now gone. On the plus side, Bloomington does have a home grown life sciences company, the Cook Group.

I’ve long thought that Indiana could benefit from better linking Bloomington, Indianapolis, and Lafayette. Indeed, both Purdue and IU have beefed up their Indianapolis operations. And Purdue has been a leader in helping spawn tech related business in Lafayette. And of course loyal readers know that I advocate generally much tighter linkages between Indiana’s smaller manufacturing cities and Indianapolis.

Ironically, while the best synergies are likely to be between Bloomington and Indy, I expect this to be the one that is least likely to happen, apart from a few university related items. It was very clear to me as a student there that Bloomington, or at least the folks affiliated with the greater university community, regard Indiana with barely disguised contempt. They view themselves as right thinking progressive sophisticates surrounded by a sea of retrograde Hoosiers. Perhaps that’s hyperbole, but I think it is fair to say that one big difference between Indy and Bloomington is that while Indy sees itself as the cultural capital of Indiana, Bloomington sees itself as the cultural oasis of Indiana.

One particular manifestation of this is extreme local suspicion and hostility towards everything to do with Indy. Local leaders railed against radio stations like WTTS reorienting its marketing towards Indy. I remember Bloomington Hospital trying to proactively take steps to maintain local ownership and figure out how to keep any Indianapolis based medical groups out. Perhaps most tellingly, while public transit is a standard plank in the progressive platform, you see surprisingly little clamoring for rail transit to Indy, even though there would be potentially large benefits from linking Bloomington directly to the Airport via rail. (Talk about a congestion reliever from SR 37 – this is a potential game changer). When Bloomington’s airport lost commuter passenger service, this was viewed as a sort of plot.

This sort of attitude was still on display this weekend. It’s not something that is necessarily overt, but you see it in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, I stayed at the Union, and in the lobby of the hotel there you can buy a USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Chicago Tribune in addition to the local paper, but you can’t buy an Indianapolis Star. And while this might be somewhat expected because it is a college town, there are far fewer Colts signs around than in other Indiana towns.

For its part, Indy treats Bloomington like most other places in Indiana – it basically pretends that Bloomington doesn’t exist.

It’s too bad this situation exists because the two cities have a lot to offer each other. For example, why can’t the city organize and publicize day trips to Bloomington as part of its marketing to tourists? There are a lot of people who come to Indy on business or a convention who might be interested in visiting Bloomington (or taking an architectural tour in Columbus, or any other regional areas). Run scheduled bus service daily. Heck, maybe this exists already, but if it does, it isn’t well marketed because I don’t know about it.

There’s a lot of Bloomington appeal for locals too. I am a major league fan of opera. One of Indy’s major weaknesses IMO is the lack of a first class opera company. Now few if any cities of Indy’s size have anything better than a solid regional company like the Indianapolis Opera as the financial realities of staging opera are staggering. But IU has very good student productions. The School of Music is simply amazing in the quality of what is produced. As as student, I recall that any given day you could go see great music for free at Recital Hall.

You could go on and on finding ways for these places to be linked, but I doubt it would ever happen. Indy could care less, and Bloomington would rather chop off its right arm than do anything that might be perceived as benefitting Indianapolis. That’s too bad, and this sort of mutual suspicion is one reason that Indiana has been a laggard economically. I think there is a much greater potential for cooperation between Indianapolis and Lafayette.

The trip back I did not repeat my SR 37 mistake but rather stuck to the tried and true SR 67 route. I know there is a project on the books to upgrade the SR 39 connector between the two roads in Martinsville to four lanes, which should boost the appeal of this route even further.

I didn’t have the world’s smoothest trip back, however. When I got to Mooresville, I started hitting stoplights – lots of stoplights. I’m not sure how INDOT managed this, but I managed to hit every single stoplight between the south end of Mooresville and Camby Rd. The first light I didn’t get stopped at was Ameriplex Parkway. This must have been something like 8-10 lights. And most of them turned red just as the cars from the previous light got there. This is an almost unequaled accomplishment in the realm of stop light anti-synchronization.

On the plus side, I did notice that a number of minor intersection improvements have been done involving repaving and extending turn lanes. This might not seem like a lot but I believe these types of low cost projects can have a big return, so great job on this.

We’ll see how long it is before I next visit Bloomington, and what if anything changes between now and then.

Topics: Arts and Culture, Economic Development, Public Policy, Regionalism, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

7 Responses to “Thoughts From a Trip to Bloomington”

  1. Anonymous says:

    One reason the Martinsville bypass isn’t being considered in the near future is due to the strong opposition that they had against I-69 in the first place. Anything that smells like an expressway to them is probably evil at this point.

  2. Kevin says:

    A few comments:

    1. There is a daily small bus shuttle between Bloomington and the Airport. It leaves from the Union. I’ve taken it. It’s not cheap, but for students without a car it can be the only option.

    2. I imagine another reason you don’t see much Colts stuff is because there’s a bit of anti-sports vibe in Bloomington, it seems that a person will be either a huge IU fan, or dislike all sports.

    3. The densification is interesting. I was sad to see the Jiffy Treat go. The Von Lee doesn’t look right with the Condos on the back. But since I’m generally pro-densification I can’t dislike them on principle. It’s kind of like what’s happening in Broad Ripple on a larger scale.

    4. I would love a rail link. I don’t know if the sign has been removed, but on the way into town there was some graffiti that read “Major Moves-High Speed Rail, Major Goofs-I69.” I agree with that sentiment. But you’re right about Martinsville and the congestion. Also it’s strange that there isn’t already a freight rail line from Bloomington to Indy.

    5. McRobbie seems to be a good fit as president. Let’s hope he can get IU back to its Herman Wells-era heyday.

    6. Finally, the “Bloomington bubble” was perfectly captured in “Breaking Away”. I love Bloomington; its self-confidence and international feel are some of the reasons why I love it, but it can also lead to cockyness.

    However, when you boil it all down, it’s the most livable and sustainable mid-sized city in Indiana. As long as you can find a job, that is.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a current IU student and Bloomington resident of 23 years, I think I have a very good insight into the community.

    SR 37 through Bloomington is mostly limited access with a stolight at Vernal Pike, but there are three separate grade interchanges at key crossings (SR 45, 48, and 46).

    I agree wholeheartedly that the $700 million allocated for I-69 from Major Moves would be better spent on upgrading SR 37 through Bloomington, Martinsville, and Indianpolis/Johnson County. However the 2nd tier EIS hasn’t been completed for Sections 4-6 of I-69 and land acquisition is going to be a testy issue in the aforementioned areas.

    When I-69 is built, INDOT plans for it to be 6 lanes through Bloomington with as many as 8 interchanges in Monroe County.

    As far as the city itself is concerned, there are a lot of good infill projects around the DT area. However, the conversion of the old CSX rail line into a bike/pedestrian path isn’t going anywhere and the city roads still suck.

    Major Moves is already widening SR 48 on the west side of town and will widen the 46/45 bypass to four lanes starting in 2009, which is good.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As far as Colts support goes, I disagree. Go into Marsh or Kroger in Bloomington and you will see a bunch of Colts SB XLI gear on display for sale.

    The IU campus has students from different parts of the country so Colts support is diluted but there are a lot of COlts fans on campus.

  5. Anonymous says:

    In response to some other folks comments (because I’m excited to see discussion about Bloomington!)…

    Von Lee: The addition to the Von Lee, besides the retail up front, is actually offices, not condos. I know it is fully occupied by IU offices. I believe it is their Creative Services division, that handles marketing and promotions for IU. The group that did the Von Lee project is the same one that is doing the building on the Jiffy Treet site. That one will have apartments along with the ground floor retail.

    Rail Link to Indy: Legislation was passed during the last session that established a permanent joint committee on Mass Transit & Transportation Alternatives, and also required studies of rail connections between Bloomington & Indy, and Indy & Muncie. Those studies are required to be done in about a year, and should be pretty specific about feasibility, funding, and possible locations. And yeah, those graffiti billboards are still there. Funny, the ones that chided Mayor Kruzan came down quickly, but the anti I-69 ones have been hanging around awhile…

    Downtown Infill: Definitely been happening at a quick pace, largely catered to student market. Biggest controversies with all of this growth are scale, design, and target market (many would like to see more owner-occupied condos as opposed to student apartments).

    Rail-Trail in Downtown: This project is definitely a long time coming. It will be fantastic once it is built, though. Hopefully it will be an attraction like the Canal in downtown Indy, except with retail & restaurants along the frontage.

    I enjoy your blog, and I’m happy to see Bloomington get a little coverage. Keep up the good work!

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the great comments, everybody. I agree Bloomington has a lot going for it. I just wish the community was a bit less insular.

  7. Jim says:

    This spring I made a drive down all of old two-lane SR 37 that exists between downtown Indy and Bloomington’s north side. A fair amount of it exists. It was a lovely drive, especially the long segment through the country just north of Bloomington. I wrote about the trip at

    While I wouldn’t want SR 37 to still follow its two-lane alignment today — just imagine the thick traffic — I am saddened to think of the further super-slabification of this road through its lovely terrain. I’m not full of ideas of how to balance it all out, unfortunately.

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