Automotive and I-69 and Mass Transit and I-465 and Street Improvements and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

Half-billion-dollar traffic plan considered for northeast side

October 15, 2007

To many motorists, it's the prickliest quilt of concrete and steel in the metro area: the convergence of interstates 69 and 465. If the wind is just right, you can hear the cursing for miles.

Whether it's southbound I-69 traffic backed up almost to Noblesville, or northbound I-465 traffic a parking lot all the way to 56th Street, the northeast highway system is grossly inadequate at peak hours.

So neglected has this vital corridor been during nearly two decades of obvious population growth northeast of Indianapolis that a case could be made that former Indiana Department of Transportation heads should be tried at The Hague.

But a report issued last month by an INDOT consultant shows a radical, $600 million reconfiguration is in the works. Changes to the reviled interchange and nearby parts of I-465 and I-69 could begin by 2012.

The price, paid with federal money and proceeds from leasing the Indiana Toll Road, is about half of what a modest light rail commuter line would cost.

The massive interstate project also would include reconfiguring busy I-465 interchanges at Keystone Avenue and at Allisonville Road and the interchange at 82nd Street and I-69.

The most striking design feature for 40-year-old I-69: a number of "collector-distributor" corridors that would segregate local traffic so vehicles on the interstate keep flowing.

Collectors are already used downtown and in places such as Shadeland Avenue at I-465 and I-74 at Shadeland. INDOT says they're generally suited for interstates where exits are no more than a mile or so apart.

INDOT plans to present its draft engineering assessment Oct. 24 at Heritage Christian School, 6401 E. 75th St.

A time hasn't been set, but perhaps it should be well after rush hour.

"The meeting will be the very start of the input process," said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield. INDOT already has issued a request for proposals for project management estimated at up to $45 million. That's a clue of just how large this project would be.

Preferred alternative

One additional through-lane would be added to each side of I-465, over a roughly eight-mile stretch between College Avenue to the west and Fall Creek Road to the east.

Also, two partial cloverleaf loops would be dropped into each of the diamond-shaped I-465 interchanges at Keystone Avenue and Allisonville Road, according to the preferred alternative prepared for INDOT by Louisville-based consulting firm Corradino Group.

These cloverleafs appear to eliminate the need for traffic signals that now limit how many vehicles can turn onto I-465 approach ramps at a given time.

And then there's the I-465/I-69 interchange, with a tangle of new ramps that look like an octopus had been dangled over the site.

"It kind of looks like something out of [Los Angeles], doesn't it?" said State Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican long active in transportation issues.

Kenley said the portion of the Corradino report he viewed showed some promise, adding that something must be done to improve the interstates in the next decade given the huge population growth in northeastern suburbs. The daily traffic count on I-69, north of I-465, averages 173,495 cars and trucks per day and is projected to grow to 185,431 vehicles by 2031.

By 2012, improvements are "going to be absolutely necessary," Kenley said.

How did this key interchange become such a mess in the first place, requiring such a massive expenditure to fix it?

INDOT's Wingfield noted that I-69, when built in 1969, was intended to go all the way south to downtown, tying in at the north I-70/I-65 split. Graded, grass-covered ramps to accommodate the hookup are still visible today.

Four-lane Binford also was built much like the interstate that was to come, but traffic signals still choke it.

Thus, the I-465 interchange was originally geared to favor I-69 flow to and from downtown. Such an interstate would have been busy today, given how much shorter that route would have been than the I-70/I-465 route that connects downtown and the northeast side.

I-69 was never built to downtown because of opposition by neighborhoods, some of which are blighted today. Also, myopic state planners didn't expect the population of the northeast side to grow as much as it has, Kenley said. And today, with environmental and historic preservation considerations, the prospect of finishing the I-69 link to downtown appears as dead as ever.

"As a result, the through-movement will really be geared to using I-465," said INDOT's Wingfield.

Just how this will look is still fuzzy despite the proposals in the Carradino report. "It's our best estimate at this point, but it's still nothing but an educated guess" as to final design, Wingfield said.

He cautioned that the draft being shared with the public "is the most preliminary type of information."

Reaction ahead

Likely to chime in are businesses along the interstates, particularly those on the west side of southbound I-69. Some, including a hotel under construction there, would have to be razed to accommodate the design being studied.

Some also question whether the interstate reconfiguration is appropriate without first considering what role rapid transit might play in alleviating northeast congestion.

Christine Altman, a Hamilton County commissioner who has served as chairwoman of the Central Indiana Transit Authority, agreed the northeast corridor "is totally not functional."

At the same time, Altman and colleagues have for years sought to persuade INDOT to consider a solution integrated with mass transit. The solution from INDOT, she said, is always more roads.

But, Altman contends, "it's not just a road-based solution, long term ... you just can't build your way out of an urban congestion problem. Otherwise, we'll look like Los Angeles."

The transit authority and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization this year plan to unveil a corridor and preferred vehicle type for a proposed rapid transit line. The first leg would stretch from downtown to Fishers and perhaps to Noblesville. It could range in cost from $600 million for a bus-based system with dedicated lanes to $1.5 billion or more for an automated guide-way system akin to a monorail.

She noted MPO head Mike Dearing's recent testimony before a state legislative committee that the cost to add one additional lane around I-465 alone would total about $1 billion.

"We could build out close to 84 miles of fixed guide way" with that amount, Altman said.

But Kenley said Indianapolis lacks the population density to make mass transit a no-brainer, and it still has to overcome a culture deeply ingrained in the car. So, for now, "highways are going to continue to be important."

Not ambitious enough?

Some will question whether INDOT's northeast corridor project goes far enough, despite its $500-million-plus price tag.

Conspicuously missing is a widening of the current six-lane I-69 all the way up to 96th Street. The plan being studied calls for widening to stop about a half mile south of the busy east-west artery.

Nor does it address a bottleneck that can slow traffic all the way south to I-465: problems at the 116th Street exit on I-69.

Last year, INDOT added a second exit lane on northbound I-69 to 116th Street and State Road 37.

But, without concrete barriers to separate the exit lanes from the interstate, motorists often make aggressive, last-minute merges from the far left lanes to the exit.

Whether distracted by cell phones or simply trying to gain an advantage over other motorists, the last-minute mergers often result in brake jamming and rear-end collisions for motorists who conscientiously cued in the right lane of I-69 to exit.

Also causing backups is a poor ramp design that dumps in traffic from 116th attempting to go north on I-69 or S.R. 37.

INDOT's Wingfield said improvements to this more northern part of I-69 are envisioned in a later phase, although timing may well depend on whether the state exhausts its "Major Moves" money pot, generated by leasing the Indiana Toll Road.

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