Sunday, June 30th, 2013

If You Can Repeatedly Close a Freeway For Months At a Time, Do You Really Need It At All?

Ten years ago state highway officials closed I-65/I-70 in downtown Indianapolis for three months for a rehab project called “Hyperfix.” This was expected to cause a “carmageddon,” but as we’ve grown used to many times by now, the expected traffic disaster never materialized:

As the start date approached, INDOT and its partners implemented other precautions to ensure smooth traffic flow but soon discovered the additional efforts were unnecessary. For example, the State budgeted $100,000 in overtime for police, mainly to direct traffic downtown. But after 3 days into the project, motorists had adjusted to the detours and other factors, and the extra police presence was no longer necessary. Similarly, the city established an emergency communication center to handle traffic tie–ups or other difficulties but closed the center after 48 hours when the tie-ups never materialized.

Now the Indiana Department of Transportation is back, planning to close the same stretch of road again for three more months this fall to lower the pavement in order to increase overhead bridge clearances. The first question this is should prompt is why vertical clearance issues weren’t addressed the first time around.

But the more interesting question is this: If you can keep closing this stretch of interstate for three months at a time to work on it, do you really need it at all? Why not just close it permanently and save all this money?

That’s a very serious question I think should be considered. As we are seeing here, keeping this piece of roadway in operation is an expensive proposition and it will require expensive repairs in perpetuity to remain serviceable. Removing the only through interstate connection in downtown Indianapolis might seem, as it were, a bridge too far. But not only do I believe it may actually be feasible, it’s a potential game changer for downtown.

There is plenty of precedent for routing through traffic around the I-465 beltway. In fact, I-74 and the future I-69 do just this. For I-65, an I-465 routing is a similar distance to the downtown one. In fact, not that long ago that route was signed as an official alternate route one could choose (and still may be as far as I know). Similarly, because I-70 runs southwest out of downtown and the origin point of I-465 is shifted to the north of downtown, it’s not much of a detour for through traffic on I-70 either. INDOT, along with four other states, is already studying an I-70 truck-only lanes project, and the I-465 routing might make perfect sense for that as well. I might add that through hazardous cargo is already required to use I-465 and that Atlanta already has a through truck restriction for air quality purposes. So there are precedents for things like this.

The freeways of Indianapolis showing an I-465 through routing for existing I-74 and I-69, I-465 shifted to the north, and three sides of a downtown freeway loop that could be demolished. Image via Wikipedia.

In the removal scenario you route through traffic across I-465 and tear down the inner loop freeway around downtown. The interstate spurs remain to provide neighborhood access and access to and from downtown. The freeway barrier around downtown is removed, which permits fully restoring the street grid (especially important on the South Side) and reconnecting downtown to the surrounding neighborhods. The inner loop would be replaced with a surface parkway with much more limited capacity to aid in distribution within downtown. This parkway should be built by the city using state and local funds only to avoid the federal process mess and state highway standards that might result in another completely inappropriate urban street like West St. (This is similar to what was done for Keystone Parkway in Carmel, though this would be a surface street).

With the freeway gone there’s plenty of opportunity to re-purpose interstate right of way for development (putting it back on the tax rolls – w00t!), adding green space, or any number of things the city might want to do that don’t involve creating a massive barrier between downtown and the neighborhoods. It might even be possible to fund the demolition and rebuilding with some subset of the NPV of future freeway maintenance costs (relinquishment) plus TIF.

This also has big potential synergies with other mooted projects. There’s been a lot of discussion about relocating the rail lines through downtown (another huge barrier) to the old Indianapolis Union Belt, for example.

CSX main line through downtown (blue) and IU Belt (red). Also a closer view of the I-65/I-70 inner loop that could be removed. Image via Huston Street Racing

Crumbling freight rail viaduct on the CSX mainline downtown, creating a barrier at Washington St. and College Ave.

And there’s an old buried creek called Pogue’s Run that could conceivably be daylighted provided sewerage issues were sorted.

Pogue’s Run, before it gets routed into a storm sewer pipe. Image via Near Eastside Notes

The combo of a freeway removal, freight rail removal, and stream daylighting would be a transformational game-changer for downtown Indianapolis. The nice thing is that these are all discrete projects with independent utility. The stream daylighting would have to come last, but the other removals don’t depend on each other.

The chance anyone in Indy is going to actively consider this? Somewhere around zero, I think. Which is too bad. But when the forecasted traffic apocalypse fails to materialize yet again this fall, I hope people will at least consider why the state has to keep spending millions upon millions of dollars to maintain forever a freeway that may not even be needed.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

38 Responses to “If You Can Repeatedly Close a Freeway For Months At a Time, Do You Really Need It At All?”

  1. Peter Brassard says:

    I have to admit that I’ve only been to Indianapolis once decades ago and don’t really know the city, but I find it baffling that a central interstate highway in an auto-centric region could just be shut with hardly any affect.

    If such a major thru road like I-95, I-91, or I-84 were closed in the roughly comparable sized metros like Providence or Hartford, it would be bedlam with 50-mile backups that would last hours. Unlike these eastern examples, perhaps it’s because Indy has a complete beltway surrounding the region or like so much of the country has a rational street grid that might more easily absorb commuter traffic in its center.

    Does the city have a serious traffic problem? The real question is if the road can just be closed with no affect, did Indianapolis ever need Interstate highways though its center?

  2. Peter, I’m not sure that this freeway ever did need to be connected a through route through downtown.

    Don’t be so sure other cities couldn’t eliminate freeway. Louisville has an advocacy group called 8664 that suggested tearing down part of I-64 along the riverfront instead of a $3 billion bridges project. The proposal was rejected but a similar project called “Restore 64” closed that road for an extended period with no ill effects.

    Rhode Island seems to be laid out linearly along the I-95 spine, something that’s not true in Indy, which has a 360 degree development pattern. Also, the bay is a gigantic barrier that forces people to cross at I-195, requiring distribution north and south via I-95. And I-295 is not designed to the capacity of I-465. Also, Indianapolis is flat and laid out on a grid that permits arterial travel and distribution in a way that New England does not.

    I’m not sure Providence or the geography of the northeast lends itself to teardowns, but there are probably many freeways we could learn to live without if we needed to.

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    I’ve recently been traveling more on I-465 around the suggested I-70 detour. That’s the southern half of the “east leg” plus the “south leg”. (Do not ask me why the Indy convention is to call the sides of the loop “legs”, but it is.)

    From 3:30-5:30 or so, the east and south legs already back up and jam pretty badly between about Washington Street (US40) and I-65. I suspect this is because through trucks already avoid the downtown mess in going from I-70 westbound to I-65 southbound via the outer loop because the outer loop is 3 miles shorter.

    I often travel I-70 westbound (inbound) from the east side in the early part of rush hour and don’t typically encounter any backup at all until I reach the inner junction.

    Google Maps has the I-70W-to-I-65N distance the same using the through-town vs. east/north legs of 465; I-70W to I-65S is shorter on 465; and as “alternate I-70” it’s less than 2 miles longer. So through truckers may already be using these routes.

    I think this idea of Aaron’s has some merit, provided that the outer loop is upgraded to 4 lanes each way between I-70 on the east and west sides (it is already widened the rest of the way around the loop), and the interchange with I-65 south is upgraded to a modern flyover (it is now a part-cloverleaf, part-flyover).

    Nonetheless, I am mindful of the continuing need to get semi-trucks into the city for deliveries (there are still many truck terminals, moving companies, manufacturing and distribution facilities inside 465). This would require building a pretty heavy-duty “parkway” to handle the weights.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    Further comment re I-465/65 junction on the south side: the Emerson Ave. on and off ramps are very close to I-65, and this causes some congestion that could be avoided with a redesign that incorporates I-65 flyover ramps with left-side splits and merges instead of right-side ones.

  5. Chris,

    I’m not anti-freeway as you know. The south/southeast leg of I-465 definitely needs to be upgraded. INDOT blew it bigtime when they failed to rebuild I-465/I-65S as a four-level stack. (They are making partial upgrades now I believe, but it won’t fix the problem). The problem is the interchange, not capacity. The southeast leg was designed with bridges to support four lanes on I-465.

    Keep in mind, this upgrade will be required anyway because of I-69. Also keep in mind that most through traffic is not going through town at rush hour. Also, even rush hour downtown is not way I would call a “mess”

    Definitely trucks need to be accommodated for local deliveries and O&D.

    I’m not saying this is a slam dunk, but it’s not the crazy idea it might seem. I believe all of the problems are solvable. Prima facie if you can close it for six months, you can probably learn to live without it.

  6. CityBeautiful21 says:

    Aaron, I don’t know a lot about Indianapolis, but I know that most downtown freeways subtract rather than add value. If you haven’t seen how Patrick Kennedy et al are going after this issue in Dallas, check it out. Their approach is a formidable blueprint in terms of explaining the problem and highlighting the benefits of freeway removal.

  7. Peter Brassard says:

    A possible exception for Providence: Rather than a total elimination, I suspect if the 6/10 Connector, along with its extensions beyond the city core, could be candidates for a downgrade (or should I say upgrade) to an urban boulevard? More like the replacement of the Presidio Freeway in San Francisco following the earthquake. A similar proposal has been floating around to downgrade the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx to a boulevard, as well as the plan in New Haven with CT-34 stub. There are probably others in the northeast, but just not as dramatic as the Indy downtown loop.

  8. John Morris says:

    Wait for the screaming from the Colts about a few minutes of extra game day traffic even though the stadium sits empty the rest of the time.

  9. John Morris says:

    So Aaron have you heard many (or any) people in Indy seriously thinking about this? The best argument for it seems to be the very low level of private mixed use investment currently happening downtown. Clearly what is happening now isn’t working well.

  10. John, the rail removal was studied officially. (It actually has more problems than freeway removal, IMO, since it would affect transit ROW into the city and re-route freight trains through some neighborhoods that would no doubt object.

    The other items AFAIK, nothing.

  11. Jim says:

    A few random thoughts this article triggered:

    Every time I drive I-65 south from my Kessler/Michigan area home I feel sad to see the neighborhoods that were destroyed by its construction.

    Arguments that the downtown loop may be superfluous do resonate with me. I even question whether this project is necessary — why can’t through trucks and other tall vehicles be made to just follow 465?

    But good heavens, do I love how fast I can get to Fountain Square thanks to I-65. If I drive at slightly extralegal speeds, I can be sipping a Sazerac at Imbibe in 15 minutes. I’d hate to lose the downtown loop just for that reason. My brother lives near 86th/Ditch and it’s 40 minutes to Fountain Square on surface streets every time.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    John, the stadium is used more than just for Colts events.

    NCAA basketball and indoor field events, NFL Combine (a week during the late winter) the Big10 football championship, state HS football championships, marching band competitions, dirt bike and 4×4 tour stops, stadium concerts, and large equipment and vehicle trade shows since the stadium is connected to convention center.

    I realize that “every other week” on average is still not high utilization, but it’s a lot more than just 10 games a year.

    Anyway, I doubt the Colts would care about traffic delay…the game tickets are sold out year after year. The stadium itself has relatively few parking places associated directly with it, maybe 1000 or less and those are paid premium spots; those will always be sold too.

  13. John Morris says:

    In almost every city I am aware of teams complain about any actual development near the stadiums that could affect traffic or any cuts in highway capacity. The Steelers complained about the Rivers Casino, The Giants complain about the idiotic Xanadu Meadowlands mall thing. I’m sure if TOD was proposed in Secaucus, they would protest that.

    Bottom line is this is what Indy has chosen to do with it’s downtown instead of making it a viable, livable place.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    It IS “a viable, livable place” if you’re homeless or in the upper 1/4 of the income curve.

    Just like downtowns everywhere.

  15. J. England says:

    I don’t really know about I-70, and I always wondered about building a relatively low clearance bridge ab initio, thereby requiring rebuilding, but I do know destroying the through RR route through town and forcing all trains through the Belt Railway, providing extra miles of slow trackage, with multiple highway crossings, through the inner city, hauling all sorts of Haz Mat, makes little sense. The belt at one time had many industrial switching customers on that line. It is presumed such will never again happen, and trucks will haul all freight to suburban industrial parks, near where average workers will live. However, every so often a rumor surfaces that a short line will lease the belt and provide the efficient, customer oriented operation that might restore the Belt to what it was designed for – industrial switching in Indianapolis.Making it a high speed link, so to speak, would eliminate that. And per the map the Belt is clearly in the inner city, so any chemical spills, etc. will reach the same area as “downtown”. The real problem was placing all the sport stuff downtown, instead of a special I-465 / I70 exit somewhere easily accessable.

  16. Chris Barnett says:

    J. England, there are but a handful of grade crossings on the Belt.

  17. Carl Wohlt says:

    Aaron, I admire the clarity and directness of your suggestion. I’ve always seen this stretch of I-65 as useless appendage that saps nearby land values and development opportunities. I can’t see how the multi-millions of dollar required for its continued upkeep can justify the extra few minutes or so it might save south bound commuters traveling to downtown. Blow it up – it’s a drain on public resources – spend the money instead on boulevard quality alternative links that enhance property values and the city’s overall image.

  18. M J Moriarty says:

    The downtown interstates were mostly an excuse to remove some of the poorest neighborhoods in town. It was short-sighted and promoted the attitude that the rights of people with cars supersede the rights of those who don’t drive.

    Getting rid of the downtown freeways and freight rail lines, along with the proposed Indy Connect public transit expansion, would make a big difference to downtown and the nearby neighborhoods.

    Watch the cars speeding down Michigan Street, only to come to a halt while a mile-long freight train creeps by, keeping them all from the ramp to 65/70. That’s entertainment!

    If we had good public transit there would be less traffic on the roads and we could get by without the downtown freeways.

  19. I’m comment #19, which implies thousands of people have already read this post.

    My question is not whether or not this is a good idea: it’s how do we get INDOT to comment?

    Surely, their transportation engineers can speak to this question. Their PR team can eloquently articulate why Mr. Renn is wrong.

    The problem is not the lack of good questions. It’s the lack of answer from the people who are supposed to have them.

  20. Charlie says:

    “The first question this is should prompt is why vertical clearance issues weren’t addressed the first time around. But the more interesting question is this: If you can keep closing this stretch of interstate for three months at a time to work on it, do you really need it at all? Why not just close it permanently and save all this money? That’s a very serious question I think should be considered. As we are seeing here, keeping this piece of roadway in operation is an expensive proposition and it will require expensive repairs in perpetuity to remain serviceable.”
    While I do agree that foresight should have been applied further than the next day’s needs, what I read was that we SAVED money because we used less than what was budgeted (as opposed to going over budget, which is bad.) Basically, from what I’m reading (and maybe I missed something), the whole argument is “This section was closed for a bit ages ago, we didn’t have a carmageddon that people thought we would because we were smart enough to take easy alternate routes, therefore, we don’t really need this route that A LOT of people use every day.”
    We are lucky enough to have the ability to absorb freeway traffic onto our surface streets well compared to other cities that pop out at you. This is partly because not all of our freeway traffic goes onto the surface streets, but because we HAVE an alternate route: I-465. If we switch to relying on 465, what if that closes for some reason? Nobody wants all of our traffic flooding the nearby surface streets, let alone people just passing through getting lost.
    You want beautification of the downtown? The do it WITH the inside loop.

  21. Friend mentioned this post when I picked him up from the Indy airport and we are chatting on the way back downtown on I-70. I told him, sure, in the beginning, the interstates blocked access to neighborhoods like Fountain Square, but in the decades since, we’ve all adjusted to the new normal for routing ourselves in the inner city, right? Aaron’s idea would surely just mess up city drivers like me who learned their routes in the interstate era, right?

    Then I proceeded to get totally lost while attempting to get from the south split to Shelby Street. Oh right, Orange doesn’t go all the way through …

  22. Ryan says:

    Aaron, I love the idea. I think as you stated, it would reconnect the street grid, improve the neighborhoods connections to downtown and provide new green space. I also think it could potentially improve the ability to get a mass transit system implemented (rail/street car/BRT).

    My biggest concern is where can the funding come from to do all this demolition of at minimum the interstate, but also perhaps the train beltway and uncovering of Pogues Run. Once all the demolition is done, you have to create the parkway and reconnect the street grid. Then parcel out and zone the land and create greenspace/parks/connection to trails, etc…

    This is a huge investment which in turn may save money, but it may not because there would be more roads to maintain by reconnecting the street grid and adding a new parkway as well as upkeep of the parks/green space that would be created. Would the additional tax dollars make up enough of a difference?

    I certainly believe that it would improve the urban fabric and environment and I love the concept, but I just do not see that it is financially within the realm of possibility for a city such as Indianapolis to be able to consider.

  23. Paul Lambie says:

    Thanks for writing this piece Aaron.

    Of course this could be done. A city that can put together $65 million to build the Cultural Trail and get plenty of positive feedback on that can surely put together a plan and funding for a freeway removal project that could be many times more transformational.

    Everyone who thinks it’s a great idea should be contacting the governor and their state legislators asking them to consider this alternative.

  24. ahow628 says:

    At our local neighborhood association meeting, a gentleman who works for INDOT is one of our board members and was discussing the details of the upcoming shutdown. I asked about the possibility of a tear out and his response was something along the lines of, “That will never happen in a million years. If it had never been built, that would be a different story, but it is there now, so this project WILL happen.

    Seems like traffic engineers haven’t learned their basic economics lessons about sunk cost.

  25. ahow628 says:

    Anyone care to join me at the public meeting tomorrow for a little “tear it out” chant?

  26. John Morris says:

    @Paul Lambie

    Isn’t the first plan to get local politicians and the mayor on board?

    Not to get religious but that expression about knowing things by their fruit seems apt. What good fruits in terms of investment and residents has this expressway brought? Since the city seems to still have a downtown that scores lower than average for larger cities, my guess is they have no answer.

  27. John Morris says:

    Speaking to INDOT is the last move, not the first. They are there to do one thing- build and repair roads. Get other people thinking about this.

  28. On Twitter the other day a City Council member tweeted that he was intrigued, but that it’s INDOT’s road. I think that sums it up. There’s no leadership on transportation in Indy. That’s a historic issue and I’m not sure why as there is plenty of leadership and local initiative on other topics. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the impetus and driving force of the Cultural Trail came from the private sector, for example.

  29. Ryan says:

    I am somewhat ignorant on road issues and who makes decisions, but would INDOT even be able to make a decision to do remove this section of highway? Wouldn’t it require federal approval since it is an Interstate highway? Does I-65 and I-70 fall under a federal trade corridor allowing for cross-country trade/freight movement? Even with a viable alternative for all truck traffic to use I-465, I would think that there might be some issues with disconnecting 2 cross country interstate segments in the middle of Indianapolis.

  30. John Morris says:

    Whatever, these are excuses. If lots of locals and local politicians wanted to get this rolling they could. One doesn’t need government approval to talk about this… yet.

  31. Exactly.

    Ryan, you’d definitely need federal permission, but you need that for almost anything. The number of freeway teardowns across America suggests that’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

  32. Nickbilz says:

    I fully support removing I65 & I70 thru downtown, but removing rail? Where does that leave Union Station? How does removing the only passenger rail station in the city improve anything? I agree that the Washington & College overpass is in desperate need of a major overhaul, but that doesn’t mean we need to rip it out altogether. A suburban Amtrak station sounds like a disaster for Indy to me. Unless your article is calling only for the rerouting of freight traffic onto the Union Belt and maintaining passenger service on the mainline? This article doesn’t exactly make that distinction clearly, nor does it explain how a passenger-only line would require less right-of-way than the current configuration. I remember when this rail-removal plan first surfaced and I still have the same question: how can anyone claim with a straight face that the RR right-of-way is a barrier to development in a city dominated by surface parking lots? For every awkward lot created by the meandering rail line there are a dozen perfectly square paved lots available a block away. This seems like a solution in search of a problem.

  33. ahow628 says:

    @nickbilz: Here would be my (perhaps overly-ambitious) plan. Step 1 – Light rail (or maybe BRT) line to the airport. This would have very limited stops on the way – maybe 2-4 stops on the way. Step 2 – Build an Amtrak station on the outskirts of the airport with a light rail stop. Step 3 – Route freight on the beltway bypass. At this point, all rail traffic is gone from downtown Indy. Step 4 – tear down everything east of Virginia. Make a stepway or a nice ramp design up to the remaining rail bed. Step 5 – College Ave two-way from Mass Ave to Virginia since the Washington St intersection can now be properly configured. Step 5 – Tear out everything west of either Victory Field or maybe the GM stamping plant. Step 6 – Turn the remaining section running by the convention center, Victory Field, Lucas Oil, and Bankers Life into a nice ped/bike plaza and skirt it on the south side with apartment and residential development.

    Interesting aside: I’ve heard the city owns the section of rail right-of-way that passes through Union Station. Basically, CSX has no rights on that hundred or so foot section. I would think that the city would have some leverage in getting something like this done.

  34. ahow628 says:

    Also, in response to your wondering “Where does this leave Union Station?”, my questions is “Where is Union Station now?” It is basically a hotel and ballroom at this point (Crowne Plaza). It serves minimal transportation purpose. With the transit center being built over by the city county building, it will be further relegated.

  35. MikeW says:

    I think we are all also forgetting the impact and benefit that this interstate has provided. Yes it sliced up neighborhoods and built walls to separate good and bad and lowered some land values. We’ve figured out how to deal with it and are working with it. But if we take away this section – we are eliminating the face time Indy deserves to passerbys. I can’t tell you how many times, after taking a business route or an interstate that travels so close to the city like Indy’s – I’ve decided “hey this looks neat, oohh look at that, maybe we should stop here on the way back.” St. Louis, Grand Rapids, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus. Had I stayed on an outer loop, I may have never even thought to visit that city on my cross state trips. If I stayed on 465, got rid of an inner interstate, and turned it back in to just street grid for the benefit of locals and neighborhoods – GOOD BYE ad-hoc tourism and ease of access. We would be loosing some very important advertising by drivers SEEING our city. Can all the local business and shops afford that loss of traffic that they have located their businesses by for many years – based off those on and off ramps. It would be a larger shockwave than I think is expected and the benefits of tearing it down and re-developing all those surrounding lane miles would come to fruition in maybe 15-20 years.

  36. ahow628 says:

    @MikeW: Currently there are millions of dollars worth of property taxes sitting under the interstate, not being utilized. Not to mention the depression of the property values around the interstate due to noise, pollution, and destroyed street grid (the opposite of “ease of access” you refer to).

    I can’t imagine any noticeable percentage of a city’s tourism coming from people who traveled by on a downtown interstate. Not to mention that a majority of through travelers are truck drivers who could care less about stopping in Indy for tourism purposes. If the revenue from this kind of tourism was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, I would be utterly dumbfounded. I would guess it in the tens of thousands. At either of those levels, it dwarfed by conventions, festivals, sporting events, and probably even weekend dining.

    Finally, to rebuff your anecdotal evidence that people would stop by later after driving through, I’ve never done that. The cities I’ve visited most are ones that I’ve formerly lived in (Chicago), visited for business (Seattle), visited family in (Toronto), or people have recommend after they spent some time there (Vegas). I just don’t think it happens much at all.

    If anyone knows of information about or studies on this subject, I’d love to see some concrete evidence either way.

  37. John Morris says:

    @ahow628 sent me a great link on twitter showing how great some of the buildings torn down near the downtown to build this road. Of course, it doesn’t indicate the condition they were in when it was built.

    The narrative Aaron gave in an earlier post about the downtown as a completely desolate and saved by the stadiums may not be the full story. It may have been a ghost town by the late 1970’s but the question is how it got that way.

  38. John Morris says:

    I’m putting this Las Vegas update here, cause I can’t seem to comment on the old posts.

    It seems the city has plans for a major downtown freeway expansion right in the area they are trying to revive.

    It really seems like Zappos is just not a good fit with Vegas’s current culture.

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