Proposed highway could ease congestion, but transit backers say it won’t

A 2005 study for the state says an outer highway loop–like the one Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed Nov. 9–would reduce traffic northeast of the city, potentially splashing cold water on a rapid transit plan. But supporters aren't backing down.

The Central Indiana Suburban Transportation and Mobility Study estimated that at least 15,000 fewer vehicles a day would use Interstate 69, northeast of Interstate 465, if a bypass were built giving motorists a new link between I-69 and Interstate 70.

Most likely to use the bypass would be trucks and other through-traffic that now uses congested I-69 and I-465 on the northeast and east sides of the city.

Earlier CISTMS findings showed that even more–perhaps 28,000 vehicles a day–would be diverted from I-69. That's just less than half of the 62,000 vehicles that travel between Hamilton and Marion counties for work each day.

New York City-based Parsons Brinckerhoff conducted the study for the Indiana Department of Transportation.

The study produced a theoretical outer beltway. The footprint of Daniels' proposed bypass looks nearly identical to the CISTMS bypass, but without sections west and north of Indianapolis that Daniels does not propose building.

The findings raise a huge fiscal question: Could such a bypass reduce traffic enough to make a proposed rapid transit system for the northeast side an even tougher sell, politically?

"That is a concern of ours," said Mark Fisher, business advocacy manager for the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. The chamber supports the development of a mass transit system.

City planners might have to come up with more numbers to make their case, in light of the governor's bypass proposal, Fisher added. "But, with the growth in the region, it's not like [highway congestion] is going to stop."

But Daniels' proposed bypass could make it more challenging for transit supporters to wrest money from the Legislature.

IUPUI political science professor William Blomquist envisions three camps in the Indiana General Assembly. One consists of legislators from surrounding counties where the bypass would run. Another would be Marion and Hamilton County legislators who favor building a rapid transit system. The third is a broader group of legislators from around the state "who may wonder, 'What's in it for any of us?'" Blomquist said.

That camp might press for either a rapid transit system or Daniels' highway bypass, but not both, Blomquist said–at least to the extent the state would be asked to help fund them.

Others say the giant transportation projects–each could cost up to $1.5 billion–are unconnected and shouldn't be viewed as an "either-or" proposition.

"I think people underestimate the number of constituent groups that are interested in rapid transit," said City-County Councilor Joanne Sanders, a Democrat, and a member of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.

CIRTA includes elected representatives of Marion and surrounding counties that eventually might have to pitch to their constituents the idea of a regional tax to help pay for a transit system.

Thrown for a loop

Daniels' proposed bypass took city transit planners by surprise.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, which coordinates transportation planning here, has been preparing to present for public comment next spring the preferred route alignment and vehicle type for a rapid transit system between downtown and points northeast, potentially as far as Noblesville.

MPO officials also have been firming up their ridership projections for such a system, which could consist of light rail, an automated people-mover-type vehicle or a dedicated bus-way.

MPO Manager Mike Dearing said it's impossible at this point to say how the proposed bypass could affect his staff's ridership projections. Much more than just CISTM's data would be needed to draw conclusions about a potential bypass's effect, Dearing added.

"I'm working from a blank slate here," he said. "The [proposed bypass] project hasn't even been submitted to us."

Senior MPO traffic planner Amy Inman was more forthcoming.

"I don't see [the bypass] as a competing factor for transit," Inman said. "We have to have a balanced transportation system."

A proposed rapid transit system–like the bypass idea–isn't likely to beckon bulldozers in the next five years. But might the proposed bypass and its potential impact to ease northeast traffic slow transit's momentum?

"My initial reaction is 'no'," said Christine Altman, president of CIRTA and a Hamilton County commissioner.

Even with the potential of a bypass diverting some traffic from I-69, local traffic from Fishers and Noblesville is only likely to grow worse, she said

Transit's basic appeal intact

Sanders said she's not convinced the bypass would bring meaningful relief to traffic congestion, even if it diverted 28,000 vehicles a day from I-69. She noted that northeast commuters take a number of other secondary roads to downtown. "That [28,000] is less than the vehicles traveling on Keystone Avenue on a daily basis."

Others cite economic development potential around rapid transit stations as a strong argument for its deployment. And planners say the long-range concept goes beyond the northeastern corridor. The finished system could involve up to seven spokes radiating from downtown to suburban areas.

Asked whether he would support Hancock County residents' paying for a portion of a northeast-side transit system to benefit Fishers residents, Greenfield Mayor Rodney Fleming, without hesitation, said "no."

But Fleming said he thinks there could eventually be support for a broader transit system. The Greenfield area itself could welcome transit in future years, especially if the proposed bypass that would pass near the city delivered economic growth, Fleming added.

"In the Midwest, rapid transit is always going to be an uphill battle," said Shelbyville Mayor Scott Ferguson. "I don't know that [the bypass proposal] hurts, but I don't know that it helps it."

The public–at least before officials have revealed the price tag and proposed a payment plan–appears supportive of rapid transit.

So far, there's been no organized opposition. And in a survey of its business and civic group members released Nov. 10, the Lacy Leadership Association said 91 percent of the 337 people who responded said Indianapolis needs a public transit system.

Seventy-four percent said they would ride such a system to downtown sporting and other events, while 56 percent said they'd use it to commute to and from work.

"They'll start using it for those purposes and realize how great it is [for work commute]," said Indianapolis attorney Susan Brock Williams, a member of the Lacy association and chairwoman of Mayor Bart Peterson's Leadership Cadre.

"To be a world class city, we need a rapid transit system."

Most of those who responded said their current commute, at anywhere from 16 to 45 minutes, is already too long.

Survey respondents acknowledged there would be a price to pay: 90 percent expected it would require a tax increase of some sort to fund the system.

"People were pretty realistic about what it might take," said Theresa Rhodes, executive director of Lacy Leadership Association.

A number of businesses have voiced support for a transit system because they often struggle to get lower-wage workers to their locations in the suburbs, noting that city buses don't go that far.

The CISTMS study of the effects of an outer highway loop found "with one of two possible exceptions, it would provide little accessibility benefit to existing employment centers" such as downtown Indianapolis, the airport and the burgeoning commercial centers in Hamilton County near I-465, U.S. 31 and State Road 431.

A rapid transit system, though, would provide access to urban areas for work and for entertainment, said the chamber's Fisher.

Rapid transit also could be a mobility solution for an aging population.

"What's going to happen when the baby boomers have their licenses taken away?" Fisher added.

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