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Monday, June 30th, 2008

Postcards from Milwaukee

Amtrak station and bus terminal

The Santiago Calatrava designed entry pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Buildings along the lakefront peeking out from under the Calatrava bridge to the museum.

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

Hope for Urban Schools – At What Cost?

The poor quality of urban schools has often been viewed as a key barrier to luring families back to the city. Hence the traditional focus of downtown redevelopment efforts on target demographics such as young singles, gays, and empty nesters. I suppose I had always accepted the conventional wisdom that it would take improvements in schools to bring middle class families back to the city.

But what if it is exactly the opposite? Maybe instead it’s middle class families moving back to the city that drives the school improvements. That’s what an article in the Chicago Tribune today suggests, as they cover the exploding phenomenon of urban families in that city. I can speak from experience that the number of children is rising quickly in other major cities as well. Even New York City has neighborhoods that are experiencing stroller congestion.

Having kids in the city isn’t new. But what is new is the number of people who are electing to stay there after the children reach school age. With private school enrollment capacity constrained and extremely expensive, many of them are electing to send their kids to public school. I personally know several couples who have pledged to do so, though to be truthful, only one who has actually done it to date.

Still, this represents an incredible sea change in attitudes. As middle and upper classes send their kids to school, and get involved with improving local schools, supporting better funding, and putting political pressure on for quality, it seems at least plausible that this would drive improvement. Perhaps this is the best hope for renewing our urban schools that has come by in a long time. I’m more optimistic about the future of our urban schools than I have been in a long, long time.

Yet I’m troubled by this as well, because it represents an incredible shift, possibly a breakdown, in the intergenerational compact. Traditionally, parents have endured significant hardship and sacrificed to make sure their children had the greatest potential for success in life, and to have the chance to live better than they themselves were able to. This idea that each generation should bequeath a better life to its successors is heavily ingrained in the American psyche.

But this urban families movement stands this idea on its head. Rather than the parents sacrificing to give the best opportunities to their children, the parents are sacrificing their own children’s education in order to preserve an urban lifestyle for themselves that they are unwilling to part with. It is totally selfish in motivation. The parents want to continue living it up in the city, and if that means junior has to go to an inferior public school, so be it. Even if the city schools improve dramatically, they’ll lack the quality of top suburban districts. With education so key to the 21st century economy, are these parents putting their children’s future at risk? Only time will tell.

This reminds me of another similar item I saw in the news lately. Indiana University is planning to put a full four year medical school program in Northwest Indiana and other places around the state. The idea is that people from the area will go to school near home instead of the main Indianapolis campus or transferring out of state. The reason to do this is so that they will stay to practice medicine in the area where they grew up. It’s an attack on the so-called “brain drain” problem. One person in a previous article put it something like this: “Once these kids get a taste of Broad Ripple, they’ll never want to go back to the farm.”

Wanting to increase the number of physicians in under served parts of the state is admirable. I might suggest two things, however. One, the lights of Chicago are likely to beckon a young doctor in NWI as much or more than those of Broad Ripple will attract them in Indy. Secondly, this again is a deliberate attempt to circumscribe the future of our next generation for the benefit of someone else. It is particularly saddening to see that a university, an institution traditionally devoted to broadening minds and expanding possibilities, would be complicit in this. In effect, what IU is saying is, let’s do what we can to keep our kids from finding out about the world. If they never discover what’s out there, they won’t be tempted to leave home. This is a terrible attitude. Again, this is a matter of values, but I believe that we should be doing what we can do help young people achieve their hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and part of that is making sure they are exposed to enough of what’s out there to find their proper calling, and that they have the broadest possible spectrum of possibilities to pursue.

For some, practicing medicine in their home town is that calling. If so, they’ll find it on their own. My tiny rural hometown community lacked a doctor for many years. But one local left town to go to medical school, practiced elsewhere for a while, then decided there was no place he’d rather be than where he grew up. Today he has a thriving practice as the area doctor where there was previously none. And it didn’t take trying to limit his possibilities to get there.

That’s not to say that there is no place for sacrificing even the personal interest of our children for the good of society. For a republic to endure, it’s citizens must have the civic virtue to understand the need to do their duty to their society when called. The call to serve the community is a powerful one in the human spirit. We see all the time people who answer it. Yes, even for young people, many of whom throughout our history have even been killed while serving the country in times of war.

But what I see in these cases is not a call to duty. It’s one group of people pursuing its own self-interest at the expense of another. I only know one couple who has said they are sending their kids to Chicago Public Schools because they feel it is their obligation to take a stand in their neighborhood and not take the easy road by leaving those who don’t have the option behind and moving to the suburbs. Everybody else just talks about how much they love the city.

Perhaps I’m sounding a bit too negative. The benefits of reviving our urban schools and ensuring a supply of doctors for all our communities are big. And I feel good about the hopeful signs there. It’s just that I’m a bit troubled at some of the underlying rationales behind both things. When people started packing up and moving to the suburbs, the negative consequences of that weren’t readily foreseen. Perhaps likewise the negatives of the return are yet to manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Having had their own education short changed for the benefit of their parents’ lifestyle, will these children down the road be so willing to sacrifice their own lifestyle to care properly for those parents in old age? We’ll see.

17 Comments
Topics: Education
Cities: Chicago

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Indianapolis is Making Major Moves

It’s a popular conception that Indianapolis disproportionately benefits from the state’s largesse. For roads at least, I can tell you this was historically certainly not the case. I specifically analyzed several of the states previous spending programs, and the Indianapolis area was always well below the statewide average in per capita expenditures. Most of the Indianapolis interstate system is pretty much unchanged from the day it was built. Hamilton County, by far the fastest growing in the state for some time, has received little to nothing in state highway funds historically.

The Major Moves program appears to be changing that. I haven’t done any per capita spending analysis on this program. But it represents a major investment in the Indianapolis roadway system by any measure. Here are the major freeway projects included:

  • Widen I-465 on the west side (11 miles) – already under construction
  • Widen I-465 and a portion of I-69 in the northeast corridor (10 miles)
  • Widen and upgrade US 31 to a freeway in Hamilton County (12 miles)
  • Widen I-65 in Boone County (12 miles)
  • Widen I-70 in Marion and Hancock Counties (13 miles)

Add this up and it represents almost 60 miles of interstate widened during the course of the program, more than enough to circle the loop. This is very impressive. What’s more, it fixes almost all of the high priority roadways in the area. There are really only three freeway segments left that could use widening:

  • I-69 in the northeast corridor (A priority)
  • I-65 from I-465 south to Franklin (B priority – most of this already being studied and to start shortly after Major Moves in 2016)
  • I-465 @ I-65 on the northwest side, and from 86th St. to US 31 (B priority)

The cost of all of these programs is less than the Major Moves projects. If these get done shortly afterwards, Indianapolis would have the makings of a first class freeway system. In short, Major Moves is getting the city over half the way there. Impressive.

The surface street network is not being neglected. Major projects include:

  • East Washington St. from I-465 to Cumberland – already under construction. This project had been on the books since the 1980’s with no movement.
  • Pendleton Pike from I-465 to Post Rd. – already under construction
  • SR 32 from Spring Mill Rd. to the White River – already under construction from Spring Mill to US 31
  • Meridian St. (SR 135) in Johnson County south to Bargersville
  • Rockville Rd. from I-465 west to Transfer Dr. This project is only a small start at the $200+ million required to upgrade Rockville all the way through Avon, however.
  • Michigan Rd. from 121st St. to SR 32

Again, this is a good chunk of the state arterial network that needs upgrading.

Of course there is always an infinite demand for projects, but the Major Moves program is going to wipe out a gigantic portion of the deficit in roadway projects needed in the Indianapolis area. Given that its low congestion is one of the huge selling points of the city, maintaining that advantage is critical. The only real problem with Major Moves is that will not fix I-69. That’s a major miss to be sure, but considering everything else that is being done, it is clearly looking to be a big positive for the city.

The biggest risk is that the Indianapolis programs are backloaded into the plan. So there is serious financial and political risk to these projects. The city certainly should not count its chickens yet, but maintain the pressure to ensure these projects get done as scheduled and as promised.

Beyond the highway investment, there are a couple of other major infrastructure programs going. The airport is about to open a new $1.1 billion mid-field terminal. This replaces a clearly deficient facility and is shaping up to be a solid project. With I-70 depressed and relocated as part of the recent reconstruction, the way is also clear to add a third runway if needed. This airport is in great shape.

And the city is planning to spend $1.6 billion to comply with the Clean Water Act and significantly reduce combined sewer overflows. While some of the user benefit of this investment is modest, and the environmental benefits are probably not justifiable on a purely cost/benefit basis, nevertheless this offers the opportunity to clean up our waterways and significantly reduce flooding in several neighborhoods.

Major Moves, the airport terminal, and the sewer project represent billions in infrastructure improvements for Indianapolis. There’s always more to be done, but for the state highway system, the sewer system, and the airport, state and local leaders are figuring out how to largely stay current with the region’s needs.

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The Urbanophile Conjecture

As I was looking through the recent Brookings Institution data that I posted, and especially going down below the size threshold of Midwest metros I normally look at, I was really struck at how there was pretty much a simple rule of thumb that defines whether a city is successful or not. Namely, if you’re a state capital with a greater than 500,000 metro area population, you’re probably doing pretty well. Otherwise, you aren’t.

I first noted this when I was sorting out my Midwest metros (a slightly different measure than normal, including smaller cities and excluding non-Midwestern ones) for a forthcoming posting on meeting the globalization challenge. I sorted metros into three primary buckets: Successful, Stable, and Failing. Almost every one on my successful list met my criteria:

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • Columbus
  • Indianapolis
  • Madison
  • Des Moines

There was only one successful city that didn’t meet that state capital of > 500K measure. That was Kansas City. One other, Chicago, the data is mixed for, with some measures very healthy and some very anemic. I classified it by itself as a World City. Indeed, it is taking on more of the characteristics of a global city instead of an American one. Mostly notably a central city boom with financial industry fueled glitz and a thriving upper class, surrounded by an increasingly challenged fringe, with traditional sprawl on the edges. To a great extent, Chicago is no longer a Midwestern city. There are other state capitals – Springfield, Illinois, for example – but they seem to lack minimum efficient scale to be successful in the new economy.

So I’m officially badging this the “Urbanophile Conjecture”, which says, “If you want to be a successful Midwestern city, it helps to be a state capital over 500,000 population”. It would be interesting to see how true this holds in non-Midwestern areas.

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Nashville: The Next Boomtown of the New South?

I traveled to Nashville for the first time in 2007, spending most of my time in the downtown area. I posted my impressions here, noting the high growth and high ambition level as well as the fantastic freeways, but also the generally unimpressive development and built environment.

I did another fly-by in April of this year. I made a conscious effort to try to get out and see different areas this time around. My tour guide was an Indy native who had spent the last decade or so in the northeast. He’d moved to the city about a year previously, so was seeing some of this for the first time himself. But it worked well, I thought.

I believe Nashville is an extremely important case study for metros in the Midwest to examine. Here is a city that was a sleepy state capital for many years while other southern towns such as Atlanta and Charlotte took off. Then it began heading on an upwards trajectory. It is not yet at such a high growth rate that it appears to be a completely different sort of place than the Midwest. It’s population growth is only 1.9% per year, for example, not much higher than Midwest growth champion Indianapolis at 1.5%. But all the trend lines are accelerating. Corporate headquarters are flocking, in city development is booming, transplants from the north are arriving. It would not surprise me to see this city pop into a higher gear when the economy turns upwards again.

Nashville is a great case study because we can observe the inflection point in growth more or less as it happens. And also try to make sense of what is driving it. And to understand why Midwestern cities aren’t seeing it. I look at Nashville and ask myself: what does this place have on the Midwest? Compare it to Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kansas City, and Milwaukee and see if anything jumps out that would explain it. Some unique factor of Nashville. Consider:

  • Nashville is smaller than most of those places today, so it isn’t size
  • It can’t be just because Nashville is in the south. Memphis in the same state and is hurting. Birmingham remains a sleepy place.
  • It’s college degree attainment of 28.3% is below many comparable Midwest cities
  • It has no particular unique industry or assets. It can cite its Music City USA image, which certainly drives tourism and money. But Midwestern cities have other equivalent things they can counter with. Plus, it was Music City USA all the time it was a sleepy state capital as well.
  • Just being the state capital doesn’t explain it. Indy and Columbus are both in that role and are getting out paced by Nashville.
  • Having a consolidated city-county government is not unique. Indy and Louisville are both consolidated, and Columbus is quasi-consolidated because of the ability of that city to annex most of Franklin County and even parts of several adjacent counties.
  • There are mountains, but the geography does not appear to be particularly compelling.
  • There are not fabulous historic districts in every region. In fact, while there are some nicer neighborhoods, much of the city is built out exactly like most Midwestern burgs of equivalent size. A lot of it is outright dumpy.
  • There’s additional “culture shock” for northerners to get used to when the transition, the southern drawl, smoking in restaurants, etc.
  • It’s cultural institutions are not as advanced as Midwestern ones. The Nashville Symphony isn’t going to take on the Cincinnati Symphony any time soon, that’s for sure.
  • It doesn’t have some fortress home growth companies that are driving it.
  • It has Vanderbilt University, but most Midwestern cities have a good school in them too.

I compare Nashville to the top performing Midwest metros and just scratch my head. Nashville’s arguably got nothing on the Midwest and in many ways is playing from an inferior position. So what is going on?

I’ll take a shot at explaining a few things I’ve noticed. I’m not saying these are necessarily the answers. But they are things to consider. If I were head of strategy for a Midwestern metro, I’d be conducting an extensive peer city comparison of Nashville to try to figure it out in more detail. But here are some thoughts:

  • First, as I previously noted, is the extremely high ambition level. These guys are clearly looking at places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. and saying “Why not us?” Their mission is to become one of America’s great cities. There’s no “era of limits” in Nashville. You see this come through, for example, in their convention center plans, which call for 1.2 million square feet. It comes through in their highways, which are being built 8-10 lanes with HOV lanes, as if getting ready to become the much bigger city they plan to be. It shows in the numerous residential high rise and midrise projects. It shows in how Nashville, unlike every comparable Midwest metro, already has a commuter rail line in service. Midwesterners recoil from change, and would view becoming the next Charlotte or Atlanta with horror. But Nashville is eager to move up to the premier league, so to speak.
  • Second is the unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance. Every development in the Midwest is opposed by some group of NIMBY’s. Densification, even in downtown areas, is often anathema to influential neighbors. Not in Nashville. Huge tracts of inner city are being rebuilt from vacant lots or single family homes into multi-story town houses or condos. There are midrises all over the place. It does not appear that development has any problem getting approved there.
  • Third is low taxes and costs. Tennessee does not have a state income tax. Electricity from the TVA is dirt cheap. Property taxes cannot be increased without a public vote. It remains to be seen if this environment can be sustained, but for right now, cost appears to be an advantage.
  • Fourth is that they’ve embraced instead of rejecting their heritage. Rather than saying that country music is for hillbillies and an embarrassment to their new ambitions as a big league city, they’ve proudly embraced it. They updated the image with a glitzy, “Nashvegas” spin and made it the core of what Nashville is all about. Most Midwestern elites seem to view their existing heritage negatively. But great cities have to spring from the native soil in which they are born. Their character has to be organic. Import all the fancy stores, restaurants, sports teams, transit lines, etc. you want, but it won’t distinguish your city. Nashville learned this lesson well, probably from Atlanta. The southern boomtowns took their existing Southern heritage, dropped the negative items that needed to be changed, updated the core positive elements, and created the vision of the “New South”. This is something that can be embraced by the masses, unlike the elitist transformations that are often promulgated.
  • Fifth is that, again, they appear to have studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. They’ve seen the need for freeways. They’ve looked at the style of development and the neo-traditional urban form. I was very impressed to see that there while most condo developments and such were fairly undistinctive, I did not note any that exhibited poor urban design form. When I consider the poorly designed projects that are frequently implemented in, say, downtown Indianapolis, it is easy to see who gets out more. Nashville has done its homework.
  • Sixth, Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating. I posted my previous take on the city on a discussion forum dedicated to that city. Given the modestly negative tone contained in much of it, I expected to get crucified. Surprisingly, most of them basically agreed with it. Too many cities in the Midwest either engage in naive boosterism or wallow in woe-is-us. Perhaps because of the large number of newcomers, there’s a more realistic assessment of where Nashville stands. And this enables rational decisions about where it needs to go.

If anyone else has observations to share, I would love to hear them.

Here are some photographs I took while there. First, a view of the Tennessee capitol building across a green space I believe is called the Bicentennial Mall.

A street scape in Hillsboro Village, a small commercial district near Vanderbilt University.

The Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village, a breakfast place of high local repute. I was initially skeptical but the food was actually pretty darn good. This place is huge and there was still a line out the door at 10am on a Friday morning. Pretty crazy.


The storefronts are a nice urban touch, but if you look behind this building you see a gigantic parking lot. This is perhaps an example of faux-urbanism. Putting the parking lot in the back doesn’t make it any less a strip mall. It is a difference in form, not function.

One of the many vacant lots with a “condos coming soon” sign.

The main road heading west of out downtown, West End Avenue, is developed at very high densities. I haven’t seen much in the way of this in most Midwestern cities. Midrises line both sides of the road basically from downtown to the interstate loop. It’s a six lane mega-street that moves tons of cars, but appears to have great bus service as well.

Here is another one under construction.

A proposed, but I believe not yet funded, high rise development. Indianapolis readers will no doubt recognize one of the towers as a clone of the proposed Intercontinental hotel for Pan Am Plaza that lost out as the convention center anchor hotel.

If you continue out to the west from here, you run into neighborhoods like Green Hills, which is where the most premier shopping in the area is found, and the suburb of Belle Meade, which serves as Nashville’s mansion district. Unlike traditional Midwestern mansion districts, this one is more rural in nature, with large estates that wouldn’t be out of place in a plantation. I did not take pictures of these areas, however.

Back closer to downtown is a nearby area known as the “Gulch”. It is not too far from Nashville’s Union Station.

This appears to be some seedy industrial district that is being transformed all at once by a series of large developments. It also has several clubs and restaurants. I ate at a seafood place called Watermark that was surprisingly good. I believe most of the places are upscale chains, though I’m not sure if Watermark is or not. Here’s a picture of some of the development.

More development

North of downtown is a small historic district called Germantown. This was rather unimpressive if you ask me. I didn’t see much that was German about it. It sure isn’t Columbus’ German Village, that’s for sure. There were some restaurants there. I had lunch at one of them which, fortunately for them, I can’t remember the name of because it was terrible. This area is mostly older single family homes.

The amazing thing about this area is that almost every vacant or industrial parcel was being redeveloped as condos. This really brought home to me the difference between Nashville and the Midwest. Were this, say, the Cottage Home area in Indianapolis, the local neighborhood association would use their historic district status to keep developments like these out. In Nashville, they are seen as a positive. Here are some examples.

More condos

More condos with retail space. Sorry for the very blurry pic but it was raining as you can see.

More condos being built, and still more proposed.

You get the picture. Also, note from all these photos the lack of design disasters. These are all workmanlike structures. The challenge for Nashville is that while there is a ton of new development, all of it is in a relatively generic, undistinguished style that could be in the downtown of almost any city. I did not get a strong sense of any type of vernacular style emerging. That is something I’d be looking for if I were them.

Lastly, here’s one suburban example that shows something I pointed out last time. Namely that even in brand new, upscale subdivisions they aren’t putting in sidewalks on both sides of the street. I find this very odd. While I noticed some bike lanes this time around, Nashville’s definitely got a long ways to go when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness.

Nashville is definitely a city that is on an upward trajectory. The volume of urban development and the business attraction success are impressive. It is exceeding even the best performing Midwest metros in that regard. However, it still lags the top southern and western metros. The current rate is very healthy, but probably isn’t sufficient to realize the civic ambitions. It remains to be seen whether Nashville can put it in another gear and take its place among the boomtowns, or whether it will merely stay on its current growth path. Either path is possible or a valid civic choice. While always possible, the likelihood that Nashville is going to take a major downtown does not appear high in the short term.

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Postcards: Hoosier Gothic

Some say that sports stadiums are our modern day American equivalent of Europe’s gothic cathedrals. Lucas Oil Stadium plays explicit homage to that idea. This is the second major recent civic structure in Indianapolis featuring an explicitly gothic design. The Central Library atrium is the other.

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Brookings Institution Releases New Metro Area Rankings

The Brookings Institution released a new study and paper on their proposed new federal partnership for America’s metro areas. Included is a measure of how the top 100 metro areas in America stack up across a range of measures, lined up with the three pillars of growth that they identify as necessary for a successful future: productivity, inclusiveness, and sustainability. Feel free to read this for yourself. Included along with the report are summary pages on all 100 metro areas.

I found the data very interesting, so thought I’d reproduce the rankings from the productivity pillar here.

First is GDP per job. Now this is an interesting measure. I’m not sure why they selected GDP per job instead of something like GDP per capita. The per job measure would appear to have some weaknesses. For example, a very high unemployment rate might not count against you. Most international comparisons use GDP per capita. I’m sure they had their reasons. And it is still an interesting measure. And GDP per capita is easy to calculate for yourself at home if you want to.

The US average GDP per job is $87, 771. The top 100 metro GDP per job average is $96,655. Perhaps this is also a case where the average misleads, since only 19 of the top 100 metros are above average. The median for the top 100 is $82,129.

Metro GDP Per Job Top 100 Rank
Chicago $99,313 17
Des Moines $97,256 19
Indianapolis $95,435 20
Detroit $94,116 22
Minneapolis $92,336 25
Cleveland $89,298 31
Kansas City $88,018 36
Columbus $85,851 45
Cincinnati $84,936 46
Milwaukee $83,283 48
St. Louis $81,842 51
Louisville $80,052 58

The next measure is growth in GDP per job, a logical follow-on measure to look at. The time period is 2001-2005, which may not be the greatest because of the dot com recession. You can get good productivity growth in recessions that is not sustainable, as companies cut jobs and make everyone work harder. But job growth did recover by the end of that period. The US average was 9.4% and the top 100 metro average was 9.5%.

Metro GDP Per Job Growth (01-05) Top 100 Rank
Des Moines 16.3% 4
Cleveland 11.6% 26
Kansas City 9.6% 40
Minneapolis 9.0% 48
Indianapolis 8.7% 51
St. Louis 8.5% 54
Columbus 8.1% 59
Chicago 7.8% 67
Cincinnati 7.7% 69
Milwaukee 7.4% 74
Detroit 7.4% 75
Louisville 6.5% 82

These measures are interesting to me, and I haven’t fully thought through what they might imply. I notice that the major Midwest metros score well on GDP per job, but not so well on growth. If a better rank is better in this chart, then the numbers paint a different picture than the conventional wisdom view in some cases. For example, we’d say Cleveland is a struggling town, but they rank among the best in the Midwest on these measures. What is behind this? It would be interesting to look. I threw Des Moines in there because they score so well, and this high score reminded me of the recent NYT article I cited about a worker shortage there.

The third productivity measure is percentage of adults 25 or over with a bachelor’s degree. The US average is 27.0% and the top 100 metro average is 30.6%. Again, only a third of metros are above that average, so I’ll give the top 100 median of 28.4%

Metro Bachelor’s Degree % Top 100 Rank
Minneapolis 36.3% 11
Chicago 31.6% 26
Columbus 31.3% 28
Kansas City 31.2% 30
Des Moines 31.2% 31
Indianapolis 29.5% 41
Milwaukee 29.4% 43
St. Louis 28.6% 48
Cincinnati 27.0% 64
Detroit 26.3% 68
Cleveland 25.7% 74
Louisville 23.2% 88

The overlap here between the conventional wisdom view and the rankings are pretty darn close. Cleveland is near the bottom in this list where conventional wisdom ranking would expect it to be. Louisville is the outlier here. Its economic performance is better than its educational attainment would suggest.

There’s much more data on the Brookings site, so check it out at your leisure.

Friday, June 20th, 2008

More Good Reading and News Briefs

Here is another slew of reading material for you.

First is this sure to be hyper-controversial article from the Atlantic Monthly. Called “America’s Murder Mystery” it argues that the increase in crime in many previously “safe” neighborhoods is largely attributable to the federal government’s program to redistribute public housing residents from projects to scattered site housing.

I previously noted a Wired article that explored Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman’s theory that by making roads appear safer through extensive signage, etc., we actually encourage people to drive more recklessly. The Atlantic also carries an article in that same vein this month.

Lastly from the Atlantic, coverage of GM’s attempt to put the electric Chevy Volt in production by 2010.

This INRIX consultancy just released a national congestion study, complete with city and bottleneck rankings.

An interesting commentary called “The Second Great Depression” in Detroit. The overtly racist comments posted in response are surely indicative of the type of problems that city faces.

Here’s a great op-ed from the head of Cincinnati’s MPO bemoaning the federal red tape that causes 10-20 delays for major transportation projects.

Chicago. Metra is being forced to pack in riders like sardines because of increased ridership, up one million trips just in the first four months of the year.

What it’s like to be a CTA motorman.

A sneak peak inside the Renzo Piano designed contemporary art wing at the Art Institute.

Citizens opposing the move of the Chicago Children’s Museum to Grant Park filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Columbus. The city is planning to issue $1.6 billion bonds, primarily for sewer upgrades to comply with the Clean Water Act.

A columnist suggests that Columbus should try to brand itself the Pabst Blue Ribbon of cities. I’m not sure how seriously we’re intended to take that, but I personally think it is a creative idea worth exploring.

And there’s a $75 million hole in the city’s budget.

Planners are warning that high gas prices won’t stop sprawl.

Detroit. Indicted mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is threatening to lay off 1,300 employees unless the city council agrees to his $65 million plan to sell the Detroit-Winsdor tunnel.

A quarter of the state’s roads are in poor shape, and that will increase to half if current trends continued.

Indianapolis. A nice article on the cool downtown steam and chilled water loop.

Indiana University and Purdue University are teaming up on life sciences.

Bloomington Hospital is merging with Clarian Health. Hopefully this heralds a new era of cooperation between Bloomington and Indianapolis.

The city unveiled a green home program.

Carmel won a climate change award for its roundabout program.

Louisville. The city won an award as America’s most livable city.

A group working on regional economic development.

The Museum Plaza developers are spending $14 million more of their own money to start utility relocation in order to comply with their city agreement mandating a start to the project by July 1. There is still no construction financing in place.

Minneapolis. The state is getting $135 million in extra federal funding for congestion relief projects on I-35W.

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Commuter Rail Proposed for Indianapolis

The study group looking into transit investments for the Indianapolis region has issued a recommendation to start with a commuter rail line from downtown to Noblesville in the northeast corridor. The Star summarizes the approach [dead link], while is still somewhat undefined. The leading candidate appears to be a single-tracked, commuter system operating one way at peak periods only. This would operate between 146th St. and Union Station using the existing Nickel Plate tracks currently owned by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority and currently used by the annual Fair Train. The leading candidate for a technology solution is DMU, or diesel multiple units. These are rail cars that are self-propelled with internal diesel-electric motors as opposed to traditional rail technology that features a locomotive pulling several unpowered passenger coaches.

The price tag of the starter route is $160 million. Eventually, a full buildout with electrification, more stations, and double tracking, the price would reach $690 million. There could be up to seven or so additional lines added. The Star has editorialized in favor [dead link] of this program.

Readers of this blog know that I’m generally skeptical of rail transit programs in places like Indianapolis. However, as rail proposals go, this one has a lot going for it. For example, it has followed my preferred approach of starting small, first with a bus system, then proceeding to a basic rail line, then only adding mega-expensive service as demand warrants over time. Should the community wish to invest in this rail program, this is one I could be in favor of.

There have been tons of rail studies in various cities over the year, most of which have led nowhere. Among Indy sized cities in the region, none of them actually has rail. Kansas City approved it by ballot, but nothing is going on there yet. If you go south to Nashville, there is a commuter line in place. This one would be conceptually similar to that if implemented.

In the Indy case, lagging behind cities like Cincinnati and Columbus in the rail planning game is probably a good thing. Those cities went to funding ballots some years back, and both were voted down. But the situation is very different today. In fact, the stars appear to be optimally aligning for rail transit in Indy. This is probably the best shot the city will ever have to get something off the ground. It is difficult to believe the conditions will be this ripe again for quite some time. Some of the things that have lined up include:

  • The proposal is for a starter system with, as these things go, a modest cost of $160 million. This is less than what was spent on Conseco Fieldhouse, and far less than the cost of either Lucas Oil Stadium or the new airport terminal. It is not an over-bloated mega-project.
  • The environmental studies are largely complete and things like the ridership forecast have been approved by the feds. This is a long lead time item.
  • The line is already owned by local government
  • $4 gas is here. I don’t believe it will be a permanent thing, but it will last long enough to let the decision on this get past the critical window.
  • The election is this year, and so when the region goes to the General Assembly asking for money next year, it won’t have the fear of an immediately pending election to strike fear into the hearts of legislators considering a dedicated transit tax.
  • Most importantly, the bus service that is in place right now has been well-patronized and in fact you can’t get a seat on many runs. This provides an immediate, tangible example of how a high quality transit service can be very popular in the right situation. It’s a big psychological and marketing boost to the system.
  • With potentially only three years to get a system up and running, this system could be complete in time to serve as a key alternate route during INDOT’s I-465 northeast corridor reconstruction project.

Hearings will be upcoming to obtain public feedback. As with many things, I expect a significant bifurcation of opinion.

The key in my view is whether or not Mayor Ballard gets on board with the plan and decides to strongly sponsor it. If he does, I would expect the leadership community of Indianapolis to unite behind it. I’ve noted before that when Indianapolis makes a decision, the decision is made and people close ranks behind it. This has its downside in that some projects don’t receive enough of the needed scrutiny that could have improved them. But on the plus side this means that once the die is cast, the project is more likely to get done there than almost anywhere else. A major civic project that gets the green light in Indy is far more likely to come to fruition than it is in other places. In a sense, this is very much running a city and community like a business. In my day job, we argue fiercely around the table about what we ought to do in various situations, but once the decision is made, everyone is expected to be on board, even if they weren’t in agreement with it originally. This approach is in the right context a huge strength of Indianapolis.

The real challenge is, of course, funding. There are three possible sources: federal, state, and local. I would not count on any federal or state funding. Federal funding is in extremely tight supply these days. Though on the plus side, Indy would not be asking for that much. To get the feds to help would require Lugar, Bayh, Carson, and Burton to basically all take a united front in making it a top priority. I would suggest penciling in a planning assumption of zero.

As for state funding, there are currently no state sources available. The idea of diverting funds from northeast corridor road improvements is a bad one. Those improvements are absolutely critical. What’s more, fixing that corridor has national economic significance because of the freight movements. Transit in Indianapolis is primarily of local concern, and no matter what the patronage on the commuter system, it is unlikely to materially reduce the need to expand highways. As I’ve long noted, highways and transit are poor substitutes for each other. INDOT should not shift funds from highway to commuter rail. On the other hand, it should be sure to stay clear and not get in the way of the program or add red tape. Perhaps some limited INDOT funding could be added to purchase incremental train sets to handle the non-recurring loads that will be needed during the highway construction project.

This leaves local funding. However, in Indiana, there are no revenue streams for transit apart from some limited property taxes that probably can’t be taxed. Typically transit systems get funded by some sort of regional local option sales or income tax. This would require legislation from the General Assembly, which is where I see the complications. Previous local initiatives such as Indy Works have died there because of various local disputes, and it is the nature of legislative bodies that proposals that having nothing to do with each other get linked somehow, usually to the detriment of all of them. Clearly, the public is in no mood for new taxes either.

To get this through the General Assembly requires creating a local consensus so that the entire regional caucus is behind it. This probably means funding initially restricted to Marion and Hamilton County. Local officials also have to take the lead and the heat for selling this to the public.

I see getting local funding approved as the biggest barrier, assuming Mayor Ballard is on board.

Beyond this, there are a lot of specifics to be determined. For example, if DMU cars are selected, there is a question as to whether they should be FRA compliant or non-FRA compliant. The different is that FRA compliant cars can be run on shared trackage with freight trains. Non-compliant cars can’t. The US has very strict safety rules on rail, much more stringent than Europe, resulting in much heavier, slower, and less energy efficient systems. (It is the same with cars). Ideally a non-compliant system could be used, but I don’t know if that’s feasible. For example, the Nickel Plate does not have its own direct connection to Union Station. Rather, it would have to use the CSX mainline tracks. Presumably the Port Authority inherited trackage rights along with the rail line itself. This is the sort of thing that will need to be sorted out.

Stay tuned. I would expect this matter to be resolved one way or the other by this time next year, once the legislative session is over.

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Review: US 31 Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement

The study team evaluating the US 31 corridor in Hamilton County has unveiled their supplemental draft environmental impact statement. This document includes the preferred alternative, and updated background and environmental impact statement.

Looking at this, it is hard to argue with the proposed alternative from a transportation engineering perspective. It basically accomplishes all of the goals that were laid out, and will address the needs of the motoring public well into the future. While I’ve got a few suggested design tweaks, the proposed six lane freeway is a very good solution to the transportation challenges in the area. On that basis alone I would give it an A-.

But something is missing. I was a bit troubled in reading the document to see just how highway oriented it was. The purpose of an environmental impact statement is to understand how to solve major problems in a way that provides the best mix of benefits and costs, dollars and otherwise, considering the community in its totality, not just one dimension of the equation. This document takes a highway centric approach, treating the various federally mandated environmental impacts as a checklist to proceed through rather than as an opportunity to truly consider what could be done in this corridor.

I’m not a fan of lots of regulations. Nor are many of the government agencies that are responsible for implementing road projects. When you read this document and see just how many impacts you are legally required to consider – ranging from noise to wetlands to farmland to parks impacts to environmental justice – you can’t help but wonder if we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage globally by burying our communities in red tape. And of course it is very clear that many of these were put forward by anti-highway groups who were able to have much greater success at the federal level than at the state or local. The raison d’etre of federal highway funding is to a great extent adding red tape. They give you back your own money – well, in Indiana’s case, some of it – with many encumbrances added.

But then you see a study like this, where it is clear that the consultants intended merely to stick to the letter of the law, and it is obvious where increased federal regulation comes from. I’ll go through the details momentarily, but to cite one example, the SDEIS basically punts on pedestrian and bicycle access, saying, in effect, we’ll figure that one out later. When such a core component of a project is simply not acted on, it should come as no surprise that there is a movement afoot in Congress to mandate “Complete Streets” for all federally funded projects. Perhaps to some extent we end up with the regulation we deserve.

The basic proposal is a good one: US 31 would be upgraded on more or less its currently alignment to a six lane freeway with fully controlled access. There would be interchanges at I-465, 106th St, 116th St., Old Meridian (NB offramp only), 131st St, 136th St., Keystone/146th St/151st St., 161st St., SR 32, 191st St., and SR 38. Major cross streets such as 111th will cross over or under US 31. Others such as 103rd St. will be closed and cul-de-saced. The projected price tag is $483 million, of which $353 million is for construction and $130 million is for land acquisition. There is no breakdown as to where the money goes by segment.

Any way you slice it, this is a major investment in Hamilton County’s transportation infrastructure and will do wonders for the entire corridor.

I’ll review some aspects of the report in detail, then go through the various interchange proposals.

1. Purpose and Need Statement. One of those things that every EIS starts out with is something called the “Purpose and Need Statement.” This is basically the problem statement. What are you trying to do and why do you want to do it. This can seem like a minor point and usually these documents don’t raise any kind of a splash. But nothing can be further from the truth. The purpose and need statement is truly the heart and soul of the EIS process and is arguably the most important document produced. Why? Because all of the evaluated alternatives are judged by how well they satisfy this statement. In effect, by defining the problem, you are also implicitly defining the solution.

The purpose and need statement for this study is very weak. It is a simple three fold statement:

“Based on the transportation needs identified the purpose of the US 31 Improvement Project is to:
• Reduce congestion for the US 31 corridor by improving to LOS D or better;
• Improve the level of safety for motorists using the US 31 corridor; and
• Provide for the reliable and efficient movement of commerce and regional travel.”

That’s it. Now this might, on its surface, seem unobjectionable. After all, clearly the reason this study is being undertaken is to deal with the traffic congestion on US 31. But if you read it closely you see two problems.

The first is that it effectively mandates a major highway expansion by framing the problem solely in terms of moving cars. LOS on US 31 must be reduced to Level D or better, for example. If your purpose and need statement says something like, “Driving nails” don’t be surprised if the preferred alternative is something like “Buy a hammer”. If the purpose and need statement were “Provide housing and shelter to family”, an entirely different analysis would be undertaken.

That highlights the second deficiency and the most serious. By framing the problem entirely in terms of auto travel, it misses the broader context, which is really what these communities want that corridor to be like in the future. What goals and objective do they have that US 31 can help or hinder. Consider, for example, one of the stated purposes of the Keystone Ave. project, which is to help bridge the communities on either side of that road and better connect eastern and central Carmel. US 31 is arguably a greater barrier between western Carmel and central Carmel, and US 31 also bisects Westfield, but dealing with that is no where mentioned in the purpose and need statement.

With the Meridian corridor as the second largest office concentration in the state, perhaps one problem might be how to ensure the attractiveness of that corridor to businesses and workers. Or how to use US 31 to position Indianapolis, Carmel, and Westfield for the emerging 21st century globalized economy. But that’s missing too. And oddly so given that stimulating economic growth is typically touted by public officials when announcing new highways. The I-69 Indy to Evansville link has as one of its purpose items, “support local economic development initiatives”. It also includes, interestingly, “Increase personal accessibility for area residents”.

I suspect the purpose and need was framed the way it was because the freeway upgrade option is such a slam dunk and the need so obvious. But that treats the EIS as a hoop to be jumped through rather than an opportunity to engage in a discussion around what the future of the community should be. The overly narrowly focused purpose and need here also makes it extremely easy to reject items proposed by the local governments to enhance their communities because none of those are related to the purpose and need of the project. That’s why this document is so important.

If I were the EPA commissioner, I would consider rejecting this EIS because of its deficient purpose and need statement.

2. Demographics. There is no indication that the consulting team updated demographic forecasts when doing their modeling. INDOT has historically used very low population growth estimates for its studies. This can lead to underestimating traffic demand because the principal drivers of traffic growth are growth in population and employment.

The year 2025 was the planning year in the original DEIS. This included a population projection for Hamilton County of 308,300. The 2007 estimated population of Hamilton County is 261,661 people, up from 182,740 in 2000. In other words, the DEIS would have us believe that Hamilton County added 78,921 people in the seven years from 2000-2007, but is only going to add 46,639 people in the 18 years from 2007 to 2025. How likely is that? Not very.

The estimates for Washington Township are even more laughable. The DEIS says that the population of Washington Township in 2025 will be 32,500. But the Census Bureau says the population in 2006 was already 29,361. And there are north of ten thousand approved residential lots there waiting for development.

Clearly, the demographic forecast from the original DEIS was an embarrassment. Before any traffic volumetrics can be relied upon, it is critical that the consultants go back and create a real population growth forecast. Now I happen to believe that it is reasonable to assume growth will tail off in the out years as the area builds out, but any forecast that assumes that growth is going to fall off a cliff is simply not credible.

As an editorial point, I have yet to see an INDOT study that included what I would consider a good population growth forecast. This is one of the most important areas for that agency to address in order to make sure that their studies are underpinned by reliable data.

3. Safety. US 31 is considered to be in need of improvement because it has a crash rate that is above the statewide average. This is a nationally widespread way to look at safety needs, but I find it flawed. The problem is that about half of all roads are going to perpetually be above the statewide average. That’s the nature of having an average calculation. So no matter how many safety improvements are made in our roads, half of them will perpetually be deemed in need of still more improvements.

A better way is to set some sort of safety benchmark that is periodically reviewed in light of current vehicle trends, etc. as to what is deemed the target crash rate or rates. You then judge the safety need against a standard, not against a nebulous average target. Care should be taken not to let this morph into an EPA like tightening for the sake of tightening approach designed to perpetually maintain a sense among the public that our roads are unsafe.

4. ROW. The projected ROW required for the highway actually appears to be greater in this iteration than in the original DEIS. There are more relocations in almost every category. This was a big driver of claimed benefits by Carmel and Westfield as to why roundabout interchanges should be used. Yet while the number of relocations is up, and a good chunk of the commercial space in Westfield north of 146th is being taken out, none of the nightmare scenarios floated by local government regarding $750 million project price tags or the decimation of Westfield’s tax base is coming to pass. The ROW cost is clearly high, since this is just about the most expensive real estate in Indiana, but doesn’t seem to blow the budget. The cost estimates provided are not that radically different from previous iterations.

5. Roundabout interchanges. There are only roundabout interchanges proposed at two locations: 131st St. and 136th St. This will no doubt disappoint Westfield, especially as some of their interchanges such as 191st St. are supposed to be unsignalized diamonds that would appear to have no real barrier to using roundabouts.

I’m not sure roundabout interchanges were properly evaluated. There isn’t a lot of detail on the evaluation process, but if I go back to the CAC presentations, I note that the interchange type comparison grids contain a long and impressive looking list of criteria, but do not appear to include any of the criteria that would hit the sweet spot for roundabouts. Consider the case of 191st St. The consultants looked at items such as the volume of fill required, the commercial viability of the parcels, and adaptability to future widening of 191st St. They did not, however, consider any of the following as criteria, at least not that I have been able to determine:

  • Electricity utilization (roundabouts don’t use traffic signals)
  • Ability to fully function during power outages
  • Safety benefits from elimination of head on and right angle collisions. (The SDEIS cites “hundreds” of right angle collision in the corridor)
  • Environmental benefits of eliminating stops at off-peak periods

Supposedly the preferred alternative is not set in stone as to interchange types. A recent Indy Star article says INDOT is hiring an international expert in roundabout interchanges, and is looking at evaluating them for 106th and 116th St. at a minimum.

I do find it interesting that after significant local support for roundabout interchanges, only two made it to the preferred alternative.

6. Peak vs. Non-Peak Traffic. Again, this is widespread practice and isn’t limited to this study, but almost all of the traffic analysis and design is focused around peak periods. But designing for the peak of the peak is costly, and the resulting infrastructure goes underutilized most of the time. For example, a signalized intersection might operate most efficiently between 5:00 and 5:30 when offices let out. But the other 23:30 those traffic signals reduce efficiency versus a roundabout, wasting gas and time. Does the aggregate time and fuel saved at the peak outweigh that lost off-peak? I don’t know, but it would be an interesting analysis.

For toll roads, there is a clear path for how to address this: congestion pricing. By setting prices higher at the peak of the peak, you encourage traffic to spread out during rush periods, reducing congestion and the need for facilities. You slash prices to the bone over night and at lower traffic periods to try to encourage trips at those times to make best use of the facilities. It is harder on a free road, which is one reason that tolling fully controlled access roads makes sense because it enables more efficient infrastructure utilization.

7. Economic impacts. Again, I’ll note the shortcut that the consultants took by not fully examining the economic impacts of the new roadway. What I found very interesting is that while the typical highway study touts all the jobs that will be created, this one focused on how much taxable property will be removed from the local rolls as a result of the corridor. In effect, the SDEIS treats the upgraded roadways as having a negative economic impact. It basically says that the entire corridor is going to be built out with high quality uses regardless of the highway, so the highway itself can’t be seen as adding to the economic attractiveness of the area.

Again, I suspect that the user and safety benefits of the road are so high that there was no need to try to justify it on any other basis. It is where the road project itself is dubious that you so often see consultants engage in contortions to try to come up with impressive job creation figures. But it does show another example of short changing the analysis and treating the EIS process as a hoop to jump through. After all the time and money spent studying this corridor, I would have expected better.

8. Pedestrian and Bicycle Access. The study does not propose any specific pedestrian or bicycle accommodations. Rather, it talks about all the various plans, mostly, I get the impression, to leave the reader with the view that they are conflicting about what to do in order to justify punting the decision to later. The previous CAC documents all propose a sidewalk or path on only one side of each crossing of US 31. It is clear from the SDEIS that sidewalks or paths of some type will be included, but there are no details.

I think this perfectly illustrates how non-automobile modes of transportation get short shrift in highway EIS documents. There is enormous detail lavished on understanding the demand for road capacity and on exactly what types of interchange to construct, but almost no analysis of pedestrian or bicycle needs, nor any details on the specific facilities to be provided. INDOT would not consider calling a DEIS complete without the details of the interchange types worked out. There should be similar attention to the other aspects of the roadway. This was a major miss.

9. Missing Pages. The traffic analysis section was missing all of the odd pages. And the location capacity map attachments appear to be missing all the evens.

10. Preferred Alternative Summary. My previous comments might make it appear that I’m very down on the report. And in some respects I think it is not as good as it could be. However, I think the preferred alternative is more or less right on. A six lane freeway, with those interchanges and overpasses in those locations is the right answer. To restate, I believe a lot of the weaknesses of the DEIS come from the fact that the solution is so obvious, that the consultants were a bit going through the motions on some parts. Only the lack of pedestrian access specifications and the intent to provide only single-side pedestrian access appear to be major misses to me. Otherwise, build this thing as proposed and it would probably be pretty good. Adding additional roundabout interchanges, particularly at 161st and 191st. would be good as well.

11. Interchange Details. I’ll review each interchange in turn, reviewing the specific proposal with any comments I have.

I-465. The preferred alternative is the one that uses auxiliary lanes instead of braided ramps between I-465 and 106th. I think that’s probably appropriate. The cost of braided ramps is high, but I’m not sure the benefit is there. Particularly when I’ve got a suggestion that will effectively eliminate weaving. Namely, prevent access to and from 106th St. to Meridian St. south of I-465. A median barrier separating the mainline from the ramps could accomplish that.

I was very pleased to see the consultants include a slip ramp from WB I-465 directly to Pennsylvania St. This should reduce traffic exiting at 106th. There was also a discussion in the traffic analysis of building a slip ramp from EB I-465 directly to Duke’s Parkwood West development, but that isn’t shown on the maps. And for road geeks like me, there is a plan to implement a “Michigan left” setup at Meridian and 96th St.

I notice that the flyover from SB US 31 to EB I-465 is a single lane. I’m not convinced this is adequate. I also notice that it appears the Spring Mill Rd. overpass is being replaced with an underpass. (The diagrams weren’t too clear). I’d like to see the I-465 crossing on Spring Mill upgraded to four lanes between 96th St. and Illinois St. to facilitate local circulation without having to resort to using US 31.

Lastly, the traffic analysis appears to back up my contention that I-465 east of US 31 needs to have a ten lane mainline cross-section. The consultant could not achieve acceptable levels of service on an eight lane cross-section. INDOT needs to design I-465 between US 31 and I-69 as a 5+1 design, not a 4+1 or 4+2 design.

106th St. This is a diamond interchange with a bypass lane to southbound Pennsylvania at the roundabout there. The traffic analysis suggests this roundabout will not function well at peak periods.

The ramp tapers between 106th and 116th are so close together that they should be merged into a auxiliary lane.

116th St. This is a SPUI, with the intersection of 116th and Penn converted to a roundabout. However, the traffic analysis suggests this won’t function well at peak either.

Old Meridian St.. There is a slip ramp from NB US 31 to Old Meridian.

Carmel Drive. This road gets a four lane overpass, but no direct access to US 31

131 St. A roundabout interchange with the 131st. and Penn intersection converted to a roundabout.

136th St. This is an extremely confusing intersection today and it is being replaced with what is effectively a double-roundabout interchange. The main interchange is a roundabout, and the 136th/Old Meridian and 136th/Roher intersections are being converted to flanking roundabouts. It will still be confusing, no doubt, but that’s probably unavoidable in any solution.

Keytone/146th/Greyhound Pass/151st. St. This interchange is so complicated I won’t even try to explain it. But basically 146th gets full access to Keystone and US 31. There is access to Greyhound Pass and 151st. St. through a combination of direct access ramps and frontage roads. The development in this area is an unplanned disaster. There will be a large number of relocations. However, local government clearly favored greater access versus preserving structures. This accomplishes that admirably and I think it is a pretty clever design. The only movement that isn’t easily accomodated is Greyhound Pass to US 31 south, which requires a short detour of sorts.

There is an auxiliary lane between 151st and 161st.

161st St. is a traditional diamond interchange. I see no reason why this could not easily be changed to a roundabout.

SR 32 is a traditional diamond interchange with a surprisingly wide stance. US 31 is shifted slightly to west from its current alignment here.

191st St. is also a traditional diamond interchange. And US 31 is also shifted slightly west here. I see no reason this could not be easily changed to a roundabout.

SR 38 (Sheridan Rd) is a diamond interchange with the northbound onramp folded to the south side of an interchange to avoid a park. Unlike your house, properties owned by a municipality such as a park or a school are sacrosanct and can’t be relocated unless there is “no feasible alternative”. The third lane in each direction is added/dropped at each interchange.

INDOT still owes an accounting of the radical change in approach here, going from saying no interchange was needed because of low traffic volumes, to saying it would not only be an interchange, but be the first one built because of safety concerns. This is a completely reversal in only six months, so I think it would be very helpful to explain the change in thinking.

12. Mainline profile. The road is six lanes each direction, which is probably the right answer. However, there is a large grass median proposed. I believe this should be eliminated in favor a closed median with jersey barriers. There is simply no reason ever to include a grass median in an urban freeway. It wastes ROW and creates an unsafe condition in high traffic environments, even if cable barriers are installed. That narrow grass median on I-70 included as a part of the widening there by the airport is an accident waiting to happen, for example.

Full left shoulders are needed anyway, so why not just close in the median fully and save the extra ROW and resulting dollars? That’s what I would do. ROW efficiency does not appear to have been a primary motivator for the proposed design.

13. Construction staging. I have for some time advocated building the Carmel section of his highway as a two year hyperfix. Carmel built parallel, four lane collector/distributor roads on both sides of US 31. This allows those roads to handle traffic while US 31 is closed to through traffic. This can’t be done in Westfield, which lacks frontage roads. The plan goes something like this.

Pre-Construction Year Zero or earlier: Complete prep work necessary to implement project. This includes completing Illnois St. south to Spring Mill Rd., building temporary ramps, etc.

Main Construction Year One:
– Divert all traffic to Illinois St. and Pennsylanvia/Old Meridian from north of I-465 to south of 146th St. using temporary ramps
– Start I-465 interchange reconstruction
– Start Keystone/146th St./151st St. interchange reconstruction
– Reconstruct 111th St., 116th St., and 131st St.
– Rebuild portion of mainline
– 106th, 126th, and 136th remain open through construction as cross streets with no access to US 31

Main Construction Year Two:
– Complete I-465 interchange reconstruction
– Complete Keystone/146th St./151st St. reconstruction
– Reconstruct 106th St., 126th St., 136th St.
– Rebuild portion of mainline
– 111th, 116th, and 131st remain open through construction as cross streets with no access to US 31.

Post-Construction Year:
– No mainline or interchange restrictions
– Cleanup, landscaping, retaining walls, remove temporary ramps, install sidewalks and lighting, etc.

This gets a big piece of the entire project is done in only two mainline construction seasons. US 31 could re-open for the winter, or remain closed. Trucks would be re-routed to Keystone during the project apart from local deliveries. If desired, each bridge/interchange could be contracted separately, allowing Indiana contractors to compete. The project is sped up, with associated cost and motorist benefits. I even gave two years to complete the more complex interchanges.

This might be unworkable, but it’s the sort of thing I’d hope the consultants are looking at. The current lengthy construction timeline is not ideal if it can be avoided.

14. Conclusion. While I think that the SDEIS could have been better, I think on the whole this a very good design that, with some tweaks and full sidewalks on both sides of every cross street, would be a huge positive addition to Hamilton County and the entire metro region. It is a critical project needed to help position Central Indiana competitively for the decades ahead. I’ll give it an overall grade of B-.

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