Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Review: 46th St. Bridge Replacement

Before reading this post, you might want to do your homework by reading my previous posts on the importance of aesthetic design in transportation facilities. You can also review my preview of the I-465 west leg widening, both the good and the bad. And lastly you might want to see what I had to say about the I-465 northwest “fast track” project.

This project is a pretty simple one. It involved the complete replacement of the west 46th St. bridge over I-465. This was the first piece of real work to be completed as part of INDOT’s Accelerate 465 project, which will redesign, reconstruct, and widen 11 miles of I-465 on the west side of Indianapolis. Here is a picture of the new bridge.

I was generally positive on the Accelerate 465 project, and this bridge shows that so far my optimism is justified. This is a very high quality project, no doubt about it. Anything I say about this bridge ought to be viewed in the overall light that it is generally first rate work.

This picture shows that from a capacity perspective, the cross-section remains two-lanes. I believe this is appropriate given the role 46th St. plays. The horizontal clearance under the bridge is obviously sufficient to accommodate INDOT’s design, which is intended to be an “ultimate cross-section”, that is to say, as wide as I-465 will ever be.

Note the wide travel lanes, which should accommodate bicycles as well as pedestrians. Plus very nice indeed is the presence of sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. Given that 46th St. is basically an upgraded two-lane country road with drainage ditches and no sidewalks today, it would have been easy for INDOT to say no to sidewalk to save a buck. Fortunately, they did not. In fact, they are actually extending the sidewalk along the south side of 46th east from the bridge to High School Rd. Very nice. The only way to really improve this design would have been to make one or both sides of this an extra wide bike path, not just a sidewalk.

The pavement was rather dirty after some snow, but it looks to me like the sidewalks were poured with some sort of textured pavement. Or at least I hope that’s what it is. When I was there it just looked like an bad concrete job went wrong. Here’s a picture, though this doesn’t do it justice.

We’ll have to see what it looks like after a few hard rains. And technically, the project isn’t finished yet. The asphalt topcoat needs to be added at a minimum.

You probably also noted the metal railings. Traditionally, INDOT has used a permeable concrete bridge rail in Indianapolis area projects. This is actually a nice touch because it preserves a greater sense of engagement between the street and the freeway than a plain jersey barrier. However, today there is an additional requirement to have higher railings, to prevent punks from throwing stuff onto the interstate if nothing else. I’ve seen some true monstrosities here in various places, but this is an extremely nice way to do it. This looks totally natural and appropriate, and also provides protection to both pedestrians and motorists. The black color is tastefully subdued as well.

However, INDOT went above and beyond here. Check out this picture, which shows the additional decorative elements INDOT put into the railings:

I think this is extremely notable because it is completely non-functional. It’s sole purpose is aesthetic. In that regard, it is tribute to the designer that they thought to incorporate this type of motif, particularly since it isn’t that visible from the expressway.

Given that I’m generally so positive on aesthetics, it seems churlish to ding this aspect of the design. That’s especially true when it is clear that the designer’s heart was in the right place. But I prefer to look at this way. Better to strive for the right goal, and fall a bit short than to succeed all to well implementing a conceptually flawed goal.

I noted before that INDOT now generally gets it on aesthetics. Despite the occasional embarrassing lapse, most projects are solidly executed. But now that we’ve completed our undergrad, it is time to move on to the PhD. That’s what my suggestions are about here. Not about making a bad project ok, but making a very good project exceptional.

Beyond just good design, what is needed in Indianapolis is a stronger visual design identity. I gave some examples of how to do this in my Pecha Kucha presentation. One of those suggestions was to standardize on the I-465 NW fast track designs. Why do that? Two reasons: one, by standardizing you drive the cost down by not having to create one-off designs. Two, by using a signature design around the city, you build a strong sense of visual identity. The NW fast track designs were very good, and were contextually appropriate to Indianapolis, with a masculine, Midwest design, and an arc motif that appears to be taking on great significance locally. What’s more, and I didn’t even note this at the time, is that while the metal railings are non-functional, they appear structural, and so integrated into the overall design of a bridge.

While the 46th St. bridge looks very good, a few things jump out:

  • It is gratuitously different from the fast track interchange or anything else that has been done in Indianapolis, destroying visual design identity and raising the cost.
  • The decorations are clearly decorative, and don’t appear to be integral to the structure as on the fast track proposal.
  • The railing designs to not have any contextual significance to Indianapolis. The star is a generic emblem, and while the other parts of it could be seen as inverted arcs, they appear more as a wave motif to me.

The same problems affect the piers as the railings, though I could not get a picture of them.

Mies van der Rohe said “God is in the details”. It is these small details that mean the difference between a B+ grade on the aesthetics and a potential A+, as well as a probably higher price tag for not reusing an off the shelf design.

However, this bridge still sends a very important message to anyone who drives over it: “We care about our city and state”. In the modern day, when people have choices about where they want to live, especially employees in the industries of tomorrow, creating a place where people actually want to live is important. I believe that’s why the impact of things like this can’t be overstated. These little design details say “We care” more than any words will, and I think that even with the current design, that’s a message that will come through loud and clear.

While not perfect, this is again very good work. If the rest of the Accelerate 465 project measures up to this standard, it will end up being a project that INDOT can be very proud of.

Speaking of that, here’s a bonus view of the I-465 mainline under construction below:

1 Comment
Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

One Response to “Review: 46th St. Bridge Replacement”

  1. jimgrey says:

    When I first moved to Indy 14 years ago I lived within spitting distance of the 46th St. bridge. I used to try to go that way on my bike to Eagle Creek Park and learned that riding over that bridge was like taking your life into your hands if you encountered traffic on it.

    When you wrote about the sidewalks on both sides of the bridge, I felt a little shiver, because that helps open up that route for the bicyclist. 46th St. itself remains less than ideal, but at least now it is a possible route.

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