VIEWPOINT: The Commerce Connector in perspective

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As one who navigates the tangle of roads at interstates 69 and 465 frequently, my first reaction to the proposed Indiana Commerce Connector was positive-anything to relieve that mess. Looking at a map and considering, for example, a more direct connection between inter
states 69 and 70 east of the city seems to make perfect sense. There are many questions to be answered, however, before the state should make a commitment to it.

In considering such a major project, it is important to recognize two principles:

Roads do not create economic or population growth-they do, however, influence where such growth occurs;

Although a new road or road-widening project might relieve congestion in some places, road projects in general generate more traffic.

Transportation and other planners in the state rely on population projections provided by the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Researchers there project a total population increase in Indiana by 2040 of more than 1 million people, with a substantial part of that growth occurring in central Indiana. The projections suggest that revitalization of Marion County will continue, with population growth of 125,000 people. Other counties in the metropolitan area
expected to grow significantly are Hamilton, Hendricks and Johnson counties.

Madison County, where the proposed road would begin, near Pendleton on I-69, is projected to lose population; Hancock County, where the connector would intersect with I-70, is expected to show modest growth; and Shelby County, where the road would connect with I-74, is projected to grow very little. The road would continue through high-growth Johnson County and on into Morgan County.

An example of the type of growth-related effect of the proposed road would be to facilitate commuting from the area south of Geist and north of Greenfield to the growing job base along I-69. That would divert residential growth to this slow-growth area, but from where? Will it shift from northern Hamilton County, Madison County (which is already projected to lose population) or from revitalization efforts in Indianapolis?

Similarly, growth likely to occur in Shelby County as a result of this road is growth that would occur someplace else without this road. Is that a net benefit to the region? Will such shifts in growth patterns benefit the region? Will they benefit the affected communities? Fishers, Carmel, Hamilton County, Hendricks County and other fast-growth areas have in place planning mechanisms to deal with growth, and they have figured out ways to finance the expanded sewer, school and park systems necessary to serve rapidly growing populations. Are Shelby and Hancock counties prepared for that? Will the state or the toll-road
builders help finance the increased infrastructure necessary to absorb the growth that may follow the road?

The governor has proposed a toll road. One possible design would have few exits, connecting only with other major highways. Such a design would reduce the potential of such a road to shift growth patterns. It could then serve primarily a transportation purpose, ideally rerouting long-distance traffic that comes to Indianapolis simply because it is a crossroads.

Such a scenario, however, assumes heavy trucks, which constitute a large part of that traffic, will pay tolls to avoid urban traffic. As experience in northern Indiana shows, however, the evidence on that issue is mixed at best. And another solution to the traffic congestion in the northeast quadrant of the metro area is investment in a light-rail system-an investment that would reduce some of the commuter traffic and leave more of the capacity of the interstate highways to serve interstate commerce.

I respect the governor’s leadership and his willingness to put forward grand ideas. This is a grand idea worthy of serious consideration, but the earlier Indiana Department of Transportation studies of the issue should be updated to attempt to answer the many questions the plan raises. A serious commitment to such a project should be preceded by a serious look at regional planning issues as a context for transportation planning.

Kelly is a professor of urban planning at Ball State University and a member of the Indiana Land Resources Council.

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