Sunday, June 30th, 2013
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.