The Indiana Department of Transportation may yet allow a partial opening of one or two Interstate 70 interchanges on the east side during a 10-month reconstruction of the main artery between downtown and Interstate 465.
City-County Councilor Mary Moriarty Adams said she's been talking with INDOT officials and with Mayor Bart Peterson in recent days
about the potential harm to businesses of having all the interchanges closed.
"We're hopeful that we can have some exit and/or on ramps open at various times through this process," she said.
Numerous businesses on the city's east side have complained that they could be devastated by the ramp closures, which they learned of late last year. INDOT said it would completely shutter the ramps to and from the Keystone/Rural and Emerson exits during the reconstruction set to start Feb. 25.
Parts of Shadeland Avenue, on the east end of the six-mile project, also are to be closed at times. Already, Lumber Liquidators, with an Indianapolis store near East 25th Street and Emerson Avenue, has said it is scouting for a new location.
One compromise suggested by city officials is to allow certain types of delivery trucks to use the Keystone/Rural exit during non-peak hours, such as 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
But, "there's not a lot of concessions being given by the state at all when it comes to [the] Emerson Avenue" interchange,
Moriarty Adams said.
INDOT spokesman Andy Dietrick acknowledged that the agency is looking at perhaps allowing vehicles to exit I-70 onto Keystone under limited circumstances.
But he said under no circumstances will traffic be permitted to flow from city streets onto I-70 during the project because of safety concerns. As configured, the project will not allow room for an accelerator lane onto the interstate, he said.
Intervention by the city is the last hope for many businesses and community leaders who failed to wrest concessions from INDOT despite talks with agency officials over the last few months.
"We had been hopeful there would be some sort of helpful compromise," said Scott Armstrong, head of the Eastside Community Organization.
Armstrong's group has complained that the project, known as "Super 70," effectively cuts off interstate access for an entire side of town so that traffic will flow more smoothly for commuters on their way to and from wealthier northern suburbs.
Armstrong contends a simultaneous closing of key interchanges would never be tolerated on those same north and northeast sides of town.
"I said [to an INDOT administrator], 'How many times have you shut down an entire side of town in a major metropolitan area?' He said they hadn't."
A phased closure of interchanges was favored by many on the east side. Armstrong said INDOT countered that its principal contractor on the project, Illinois-based Walsh Construction, couldn't spare time to extend the completion date. He said INDOT officials also indicated that rebidding the project would cost the state millions of dollars.
"I am at a little bit of a loss as to why Walsh's 'business purposes' outweigh all of the east-side businesses' considerations combined," Armstrong said.
Moriarty Adams argues that such a drastic move as rebidding isn't required, that the bid could simply be amended to make room for some interchange openings.
She said the stakes are higher for eastside businesses, with one study suggesting a negative economic impact of $400 million if all the I-70 interchanges remain shuttered for 10 months.
"I do hope we can reach some common ground with INDOT and make this more
palatable," she said.
Most of the reconstruction project consists of replacing the original I-70 roadbed dating to the 1970s. INDOT also plans to widen the roadway and bridge decks, not to add lanes but to provide safer breakdown shoulders.
The most dramatic change, at an estimated cost of $21 million, will be to route I-70 over Sherman Drive and a parallel railroad line. Now, the interstate curves under Sherman and the railroad bridge.
Among the disadvantages of the current underpass is that I-70 traffic tends to slow because drivers lose sight of the road ahead as they descend.
"The way it is right now, you sort of swing down into the cattle shoot," Dietrick said.
Another problem with the current configuration is drainage. To improve it, road crews would have had to excavate outside of the current right of way, with the effect of delaying the project beyond the planned 10 months.
The difference in the cost of making improvements to the underpass, compared with converting it to an overpass, is "negligible," Dietrick added.
The I-70 bridge to be built over Sherman won't be as dramatic in height as one might imagine. Dirt will be piled atop the current roadbed to make for a gradual rise in roadway elevation. But the sight could be eye-popping for motorists during construction, as the first side of the interstate is closed and backfilled with dirt. At one point, Dietrick said, "there should be a 30-foot wall of dirt."