Our downtown interstate system is approaching the end of its life span. Since its installation 50 years ago, the inner loop has divided our capital city and displaced more than 17,000 residents. Now, it will be reconstructed in stages, starting with the north split. What will replace it?
Over the past 18 months, a group of residents, businesses and civic organizations known as the Rethink 65/70 Coalition has raised concerns about the issue. The group’s tireless efforts and meetings with Indiana Department of Transportation representatives, state legislators, the Mayor’s Office, the City-County Council and community leaders have led to three important outcomes:
◗ INDOT has made improvements to its original plan by reducing the size of the north split interchange, greatly reducing the number and height of retaining walls, and eliminating additional through lanes. INDOT deserves credit for listening and adapting.
◗ The Rethink coalition, meanwhile, has developed a vision for reconstructing the remainder of the inner loop as a recessed highway to shrink its footprint, reconnect streets, heal old community wounds, and provide new land for development. Peer cities—such as Cincinnati, Dallas and Denver—are adopting similar innovations.
◗ Most critically, the coalition’s efforts have revealed an unsettling flaw in planning: No single, agency is responsible for looking at the full picture and taking advantage of the massive opportunity this reconstruction project presents for our city and state.
This third point deserves examination. INDOT’s role is building roads and moving traffic. The city believes the interstate is the state’s concern. And the Metropolitan Planning Organization is more focused on our eight-county region than on the Indianapolis core.
While other states have been addressing the decay of their urban highways with innovation, we have been allowing opportunity to slip through the cracks. Had better planning and coordination taken place five years ago, the current north-split design could have been entirely recessed—increasing connectivity and creating the framework for new economic development today, not 10 years from now.
Going forward, the Rethink coalition will shift focus from debating with INDOT about the north split and concentrate instead on the following:
◗ Engaging in INDOT’s Context Sensitive Solutions process to help integrate the north-split design into the fabric of our urban communities.
◗ Pushing for comprehensive planning for reconstruction of the inner loop—starting with studies that give appropriate consideration to the recessed highway concept.
To begin, we’re calling for two important studies: one comparing the cost of a recessed reconstructed inner loop to an elevated reconstructed inner loop, and a second comparing the impact of each approach on downtown traffic.
These studies can be completed in a few months at a tiny fraction of what will likely be a $2 billion inner-loop reconstruction. This small investment will get the facts on the table as we work to create infrastructure improvements with the potential to launch decades of economic growth and a beautiful, multi-functional, connected urban core that can be the envy of our competitor cities.
Acting now can make this city and state leaders in urban design. Delay will only have us playing catch-up, again.
The choice is ours: Move boldly and rapidly to take the Crossroads of America to the next level or sit complacently and watch opportunity pass us by.•
Knapp is CEO of Young & Laramore Advertising and a leader of the Rethink 65/70 Coalition.