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EDITORIAL: State should pause I-70/I-65 project long enough for larger study

May 4, 2018

The state of Indiana is preparing to undertake a significant and expensive revamp of interstates 65 and 70 through downtown, starting with work on the highways’ north split.

IBJ calls on Gov. Eric Holcomb to pause the process, despite the Indiana Department of Transportation's recommendation this week that it move forward.

Indianapolis needs time to consider its options—to think about whether interstates that bisect its core, divide its neighborhoods, and bring commuters in and out from the suburbs are what work for its future.

Other cities—including San Francisco, Paris, Seattle and Boston—have removed highways or essentially buried them, filling the space with development and green space.

We are not prepared to endorse such dramatic concepts, but we want to know much more about the city’s options. And we want that discussion to take place before the state begins spending what could be $250 million to widen the highways, a process that will likely require tearing down the roads and completely rebuilding them.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett has endorsed just such a conversation, saying many of Indy’s peer cities have been “devising context-sensitive solutions to urban right-of-way challenges.”

“I would encourage the state to consider at-grade alternatives that would sufficiently move traffic and meet INDOT’s needs while reconnecting our neighborhoods and street grid,” he wrote in a letter to the state.

Officials at INDOT say they have done just that—studied the options. Earlier this year, the agency took a step back from the project timeline to conduct a “system-level analysis” to look at traffic data, costs and some of the alternatives opponents of the project have suggested.

HNTB, a design engineering firm and the state’s technical adviser on the I-70/I-65 project, completed that work, releasing the results May 3.

Spokesman Scott Manning said before the analysis was released that the results were meant to "better guide the conversation" about the highways, not to reach conclusions.

In a column on the opposite page, however, INDOT Commissioner Joe McGuiness says safety demands that the agency move forward with an improved north split.

While we are, of course, concerned about safety, we're not convinced this analysis was the independent study needed to determine what's best for downtown and for residents and commuters. Even before the analysis was finished, the state was trying to influence key opinions on the issue. HNTB hired public relations firm Hirons to meet with downtown companies and leaders to share the state’s vision for the project. And Holcomb hosted downtown business leaders at the governor's residence for a lunch with a similar purpose.

Meanwhile, opposition to INDOT’s current plan is significant and appears to be growing. The Governor’s Office had received more than 100 messages opposing the project by mid-April. Influential organizations including Indiana Landmarks and the Central Indiana Community Foundation are pushing for the state to slow down long enough for a real community conversation about the highways to take place.

We want that larger conversation to take place—and we'd like to see Hogsett and the Indy Chamber take the lead. This opportunity to rethink the highway system and its impact on downtown will come just once every 50 or so years. We can’t miss it.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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