SHEPARD: Driveable streets or wider interstates?

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Rarely do we encounter such stark choices about public projects. At a moment when Indianapolis is experiencing streets as dreadful as anyone can remember, without enough public money to do what needs to be done, we are also moving briskly ahead on spending hundreds of millions to expand interstates 65 and 70 through the heart of the city. Is this really the best choice?

First, we should all acknowledge the Trojan work by road crews from the city, the state and private contractors to combat the crisis we all experience daily. As a friend said, “I spend too much time watching the road surface instead of watching the other cars.” Working 12-hour shifts when weather permits, those crews have repaired as many as 8,000 holes a day. We’re grateful for their effort.

And when the City-County Council meets March 12, it will take up Mayor Joe Hogsett’s request to appropriate $14.5 million to support more repairs than current budgets can finance. These funds were received in 2016 but held in reserve to assure stability in the city’s overall budget. Most of the new appropriation is aimed at relatively permanent repairs in which a stretch of decimated surface is removed and completely repaved.

The documented reality, of course, is that the city’s present needs for maintenance, repairs and rebuilding total at least 50 to 60 times the number in next week’s ordinance. Those dollars simply aren’t there.

As some citizen wrote in The Star’s daily Let It Out! column, we taxpayers need to pay more to get the streets we use each day into the right shape. The fiscal toolbox has a number of tools we could use to make that happen. And public reaction to last year’s gas-tax increase dedicated to the state’s roads and highways indicated that people accept such increases when the need and the benefit become obvious.

In the midst of this genuine crisis, plans are moving swiftly to spend more than $250 million to widen and rebuild the portions of I-65 and I-70 that ring the center of Indianapolis.

Even aside from the not-so-short period of construction, the long-term impact on the heart of the city will be substantial. And it won’t necessarily be all to the good.

As Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation observes, the current plan for this project “threatens to damage the quality of life in some of the city’s historic and underserved neighborhoods—adding pollution, noise and traffic, and a wider and darker physical barrier between these neighborhoods and downtown, downtown and these neighborhoods.” People who live near the existing roadway can already feel their windows vibrate from the passing traffic.

The theory of development adopted during the Eisenhower years, when the interstate program was launched, called for reliable long-distance travel and quicker access for cars and trucks to the hearts of the nation’s cities. That’s the strategy so visible in our region’s existing highways.

Of course, the 1950s and 1960s were a time people and businesses migrated to the suburbs in record numbers. By contrast, the 21st century has proven to be a more balanced development picture. Indy’s suburbs are still vibrant parts of the region, but the city itself is experiencing record demand for housing by millennials and surging commercial development.

The question for today should be: What’s best for living and working in and around Indianapolis? While our road dollars bear federal, state and local labels, there is some level of flexibility. We have the chance to rethink the community we should be building for future decades.

Let’s take it.•

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Shepard, formerly Indiana chief justice, now serves as senior judge and teaches law. Send comments to

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