Friday, April 18th, 2008

Indiana Transportation Updates

INDOT has let a $10 million project to widen SR 32 [dead link] between US 31 and Spring Mill Road in Westfield. This project is a great example of state-local cooperation. INDOT originally wanted to build a simple five lane road with a TWLTL. Westfield wanted something better. So INDOT agreed to build a road with a raised median and sidewalks. Westfield will supply and maintain the landscaping. I think this is a great example of INDOT listening to local concerns. What’s more, I’m pleased to see local government participating financially. It is easy to demand more when it’s other people’s money you’re spending. By committing some of their own, Westfield showed they were serious. The only down side I see to the project is the two year construction timeline, which doesn’t pass the smell test for segment of road that is only a mile and a half long.

I was also finally able to read that US 31 itizens advisory committee report I mentioned before. The file blasts my Acrobat reader for some reason. But it was GNU to the rescue, since my free software PDF reader could handle it. (All the more reason to use free software).

People wonder how I am able to understand and comment on transportation projects when I am not a civil engineer. It’s actually not that difficult. In fact, most of us make independent judgments about technical subjects all the time: economics, medicine, etc. I can’t design a bridge, but I can apply common sense critiques to a lot of things. For example, an examination of project goals requires nothing but one’s own values to assess. As for other things, here are a few things I like to do. If you are willing to read rather dry documents on INDOT’s web sites, you can do it too.

  • Are the statements being made consistent and make intuitive sense?
  • Is the data presented consistent with other sources and historical trends? If not, is there is a good reason why not? (For example, is the projected future population growth materially different from the last five years’ trend?)
  • Is there a clear and compelling rationale given for a decision, or is it based on a “handwave”? The classic example of a handwave is saying “Standards require….”. There is an exception process for almost every standard, so simply saying it is a standard is simply a cop-out.

These minutes provide an opportunity to apply these in a couple of examples.

The first is the SR 38 interchange. This document says that will probably be the first one constructed, in “2011-ish”, because of ease of construction and a high fatality rate. Two things jump out here. One, the start of construction appears to be 2011, which is slightly later than prior published accounts. Two, just a few months ago, INDOT was saying they didn’t need to build an interchange here at all because traffic volumes didn’t warrant it. The town of Sheridan wasn’t happy about INDOT’s plans to exclude an SR 38 interchange.

So in September 2007, an interchange isn’t justified because of low traffic volumes. Six months later not only is one justified, it is number one on the list because of high fatalities. What gives? I’d like to know the answer myself.

The other item of interest is that the consultant say the roadway can’t be lowered below the water table. Carmel had wanted to depress the roadway through the city to avoid the visual impact of overpasses. Actually, the consultant’s recommendation is spot on here. The expense of pumping, etc. to deal with putting the road below the water table is clearly not worth it. I was impressed with the large amount of real information that was presented as to why this was a bad idea even if the money were available.

But one thing jumped out at me. That is, the state brought someone from the Federal Highway Administration to tell the crowd that the feds wouldn’t let a road on the National Highway System be built below the water table. If this sounds like a handwave to you, you’re right. It doesn’t take much searching to find projects where NHS roads were lowered below the water table. For example, much of the notorious Big Dig project in Boston is literally under water. Part of the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville, a tunnel underneath a historic estate near the riverfront, is almost certainly below the water table. How did they get permission from the feds for these projects? Inquiring minds want to know.

Again, I think it is the right idea not to do this, and it was amply supported by the facts presented. I just found it interesting that the consultant found it necessary to trot out an FHWA official to say it wasn’t allowed.

Again, it is strongly implied that there will only be sidewalks on one side of the road. This would be an incredibly bad idea. $500 million and you only have sidewalks on one side of the road? That’s not good.

Whatever the case, this project continues to move right along.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

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