Houston has them, and so does Memphis—outer loops of highways
leading from suburb to suburb and bypassing central cities.
Other than Interstate 465 serving mostly Marion County, the Indianapolis area has no such thing—yet.
A 100-mile loop taking shape in piecemeal fashion eventually will make it easier for drivers to circumvent Marion County.
At first glance, the pieces don’t seem to fit. But connect the dots of partially completed or planned highway projects and what emerges is the potential for a sort of low-budget ring beyond I-465.
No self-respecting civil engineer would call the project a loop. For various reasons, including the presence of stoplights, none of it will be built to interstate standards. It’s also so incoherent that it probably will never be given a formal name.
Yet, it will allow drivers to zip from Carmel to Plainfield,
or from Greenwood to Geist—all without having to roll a tire into Indianapolis.
“What you see each county doing is for its needs,” said John Ottesmann, director of urban policy and planning at the IUPUI Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. “As you have a more-developed [county] economy, there’s more and more demand for travel back and forth … from suburb to suburb, not suburb to central city.”
Want to see what Ottesmann is talking about? Fill that 20-ounce coffee mug and climb aboard for a long and sometimes-maddening drive—starting northwest, in the hinterlands of Boone County.
Into the ‘Boone-ies’
We’ll get off I-65 north at the State Road 267 interchange (if you can call it that), hit the brakes hard, and hang a right onto narrow County Road 400S. Just a few hundred feet ahead, in the middle of nowhere, is the connection with a veritable autobahn leading to the All Points at Anson commercial park.
That’s the one with a new, Delaware-size Amazon.com warehouse and Medco automated pharmacy/warehouse complex.
At quitting time, long lines of vehicles back up inside Anson as workers try to spill onto the county road. Building a proper intersection to serve an anticipated 20,000 workers is the top highway priority for the county, said Dax Norton, executive director of the Boone County Economic Development Corp.
With such a massive work force needed in a county of only 55,000 residents, county leaders are also keen to lure labor from surrounding counties.
The leaders plan to pipe them through the planned extension of the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Hendricks County north to I-65 near Anson.
To tap highly educated workers to the east in Hamilton County, Boone leaders are angling for an engineering study to improve County Road East 300S, which becomes 146th Street in Hamilton County.
Today, 300S splits cornfields and dips into rolling areas alternately dotted with shacks and mansions. The mansion owners appear to anticipate the growth, because they built fenced entrances to their estates far back from the road.
The route through Whitestown is claustrophobic—it threads a gauntlet of houses and mature trees. So, a bypass must be built.
Hamilton County ahead
Heading east into Hamilton County on 146th Street, four-way stops and subdivisions proliferate. So do black-as-despair German cars piloted by motorists wearing white tennis caps. Behold the local version of a John Deere hat.
As we approach Springmill Road, 146th Street fans into four lanes all the way to Interstate 69. The county is designing the final four-lane stretch from Boone County to Springmill Road.
Early estimates peg the project at around $25 million, and work could be under way in 2012, said Brad Davis, Hamilton County highway engineer.
“With that I-65 and I-69 connection, you’ll actually have that interstate-to-interstate connection that has regional value, as well,” Davis said.
Farther east, 146th Street ducks southeast near Hamilton Town Center, Noblesville’s upscale shopping Nirvana, and the street sign suddenly changes to Campus Parkway.
Campus Parkway proceeds over the interstate and onto what is now State Road 238. Veering south, we’re now on Olio Road. Olio continues south in four-lane glory to 113th Street, where it narrows to two lanes as it crosses Geist Reservoir.
As Olio continues south into Hancock County, it becomes Mount Comfort Road. Hancock officials want to turn Mount Comfort Road into a virtual freeway all the way down to Interstate 70.
As it is, the two-lane road has plenty of shoulder room to grow into.
It’s appealing in other ways. A study of the Indianapolis area’s highway system four years ago concluded that a new corridor would be a better way to link some of the traffic on interstates 69 and 70 than I-465; Mount Comfort Road wasn’t identified in that study, but it would be a logical place to build that shortcut.
Indeed, a new north-south corridor through Hancock County was a key piece of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ proposed Indiana Commerce Connector.
Initially proposed as a toll road to help pay for the I-69 extension between Indianapolis and Evansville, the connector would have run from I-69 south through Hancock County, then curve west in Shelby County before curling into Johnson County to link with the future I-69 route to Evansville.
Daniels pulled the idea following opposition to cost and from landowners who potentially were in the way of the mostly new-terrain commerce connector route.
Though Daniels’ idea is history, Hancock officials see a less-expensive, less-intrusive version in turning Mount Comfort Road into a five-lane limited-access highway.
The only real physical barrier in Hancock County is the narrow confines of McCordsville; an eastern bypass around the fast-growing town would be necessary.
The county is looking to sell bonds to begin engineering. For construction, “We’re hoping maybe we can get some federal dollars,” said county engineer Joe Copeland.
Optimistically, the work could be well under way by 2015, although Copeland said it depends on getting the funds: “I’d rather plan aggressively.”
Copeland noted the Indiana Department of Transportation is building a partial cloverleaf interchange at Mount Comfort Road and I-70 that could support heavier traffic flow of a widened Mount Comfort Road.
Up for consideration later is improving and extending Mount Comfort Road south of I-70 into Shelby County all the way to Interstate 74.
Johnson County menagerie
Driving on requires, as real estate agents like to say, a little imagination.
OK, maybe a lot of imagination. Where Mount Comfort Road peters out in Hancock County we magically fly south, over cornfields, and land at the Fairland interchange on I-74. You can’t miss it: It’s dwarfed by the Indiana Live casino.
Driving west on Fairland Road (County Road 400N) puts us on the eastern-most end of a proposed corridor stretching west nearly 30 miles and ending at State Road 37 near Mooresville in Morgan County.
With the exception of the tiny town of Fairland, there’s not much out here. Cornfield after cornfield begets patches of rolling wooded areas. The maddening patchwork of doglegged county roads almost seems purposely aligned to frustrate traffic, such that a GPS device is a must for outsiders.
We eventually wind onto Worthsville Road and cross Interstate 65. Here, Greenwood officials are pressing INDOT to build an interchange as a key component of the city’s east-west corridor.
They’d also like to improve Worthsville, which in places is narrow, with uneven pavement and a cathedral of utility poles—perfect for doing damage to anyone who loses focus while talking on a cell phone.
But any expectations that this western, suburbanized end of the Johnson County corridor will straighten out are soon dashed. One can’t help but wonder if the corridor consultants were Cheech & Chong.
The proposed corridor makes a Crazy Ivan south onto County Road 125W, then veers right onto Stone’s Crossing Road, then back south on State Road 135, then west on Whiteland Road, and northwest on State Road 144 all the way to State Road 37.
Rather than the “corridor” described in local newspaper reports, Johnson County highway engineer Gary Vandegriff speaks in terms of “east-west transportation enhancements.”
Vandegriff has held his position only three years—a narrow span compared with the eons over which an east-west route has been discussed here. But he’s heard stories of why the current, darting route was chosen—stories ranging from opposition from schools to worries over wiping out Whiteland: “It was hard to pick a route straight across the county.”
Greenwood officials have proposed smoothing out corners, such as where Worthsville hits County Road 125W. However, funding for the broader improvements for the long route has yet to be secured.
“We’re nowhere near having a construction plan ready to go,” Vandegriff added.
Let’s get out of here.
There’s not much to speak of for completing the southern corridor west toward Mooresville and north to I-70.
We could take State Road 144 to Mooresville, pick up the four-lane State Road 67, then head north and jump onto the four-lane AmeriPlex Parkway in Hendricks County. AmeriPlex Parkway takes us north and crosses I-70 courtesy of an interchange INDOT built for the midfield terminal at Indianapolis International Airport.
Leaving I-70 behind, we’re still on a four-lane—now called Ronald Reagan Parkway—that leads us to U.S. 40, where we come to barricades.
The county has money for design work on the missing link between U.S. 40 and U.S. 36, or Rockville Road.
At Rockville, the Reagan picks up again, running north to County Road 300N. It’s just two lanes, but the county has graded a parallel right-of-way to allow for two additional lanes when the money arrives.
There are more fields between 300N and U.S. 136. Design is completed for this stretch but there’s no money to build it.
North of U.S. 136, there’s another completed, four-lane stretch of the Reagan. It crosses I-74 and ends at 56th Street.
Extending the Reagan another seven or eight miles to I-65 in Boone County is a ways off. The county is wrapping up environmental studies and is nailing down an exact route. The area is sparsely populated, so the road might initially be constructed as a two-lane highway, Ayres said.
Maybe so, but even that would beat the maze of narrow, doglegged county roads that now lengthen commutes and in some cases even discourage mobility altogether within and between adjacent counties.
Wrapping up our long, circular drive, it’s apparent that even when these new legs are built or existing ones improved, there’s not enough coffee or patience to consider the collective ribbon of pavement to be a loop worth navigating in its entirety.
“I don’t know [that] it was ever intended to be an outer loop, per se,” said Davis, the Hamilton County engineer. But, “intuitively, people looked at the area and could see the need of good north-south, east-west highways outside of I-465.”•