Indianapolis group wants sections of I-65, I-70 underground

The construction of Indianapolis’ “Inner Loop” of interstates 65 and 70 displaced 17,000 residents and demolished 8,000 buildings, when the final leg was completed in October 1975, according to The Indianapolis Star. It tore apart once-vibrant historically Black neighborhoods like Babe Denny.

With this history in mind, a coalition of business and community leaders are trying to gather public support for a different design for the interstates—before the Indiana Department of Transportation has even conceived of a plan for rebuilding or repairs.

Rethink Coalition Inc, in partnership with the Indy Chamber, put together a $2.8 billion proposal to rebuild the highways partially underground, which the researchers say would physically connect communities, and save far more room for economic development and green space.

Rethink, formerly Rethink 65/70, has made the pitch before. In late 2018, after INDOT announced its plan to rebuild just the northeast corner of the loop, dubbed the North Split, the coalition commissioned engineering firm Arup to come up with a proposal for what it then called “depressed” highways. Then as now, INDOT did not have plans for capital projects beyond the $320 million North Split reconstruction.

This time, they teamed up with the Chamber to secure grant funding from the Lilly Endowment and commission a more expansive study from Arup, complete with price tags. Rethink also became a registered not-for-profit earlier this year.

“We started out more of a protest group,” said CEO Brenda Freije. “We’re really now trying to be collaborative leaders and facilitators of conversation.”

The same concept by a new name, the idea behind “recessed” highways is to demolish the elevated highways and rebuild them partially underground, consolidating ramps and replacing distributor roads with multi-modal boulevards, for example, to include biking and walking lanes. City streets or even parks can extend over the interstates, thereby connecting neighborhoods by foot.

The study, called the Inner Loop Visionary Study, identifies six areas of the loop for potential work. In total, Arup estimates the recessed highways’ smaller footprint could open up 68 acres of land for parks, commercial development or pedestrian travel.

The proposal takes inspiration from similar projects in Denver, Cincinnati and Dallas.

Arup estimates such a rebuild would cost about $2.8 billion, compared to $2.3 billion for rebuilding the interstates as is. But through the potential redevelopment of opened up space, the study estimates the redesign could generate tens of millions in new annual property taxes and more than $2 billion in real estate investment.

The north and south legs and southern portion of the east leg have had rehabilitation work done in the last decade to extend their life, INDOT regional spokesperson Mallory Duncan said. INDOT will do maintenance work as needed but does not have plans for any section of the loop besides the North Split, she said.

That’s why the coalition and chamber are talking about this now, Freije said, rather than reacting to an already baked plan, which is what happened in 2018.

“The intent of this is to be very much in the front,” she said.

In 2018, INDOT did adjust its plans in response to pushback. Rather than adding lanes, widening shoulders and building retaining walls up to 33 feet, INDOT chose a plan that condensed the interchange’s current footprint. And while it was too late in the process to make the fundamental changes Rethink wanted, INDOT also agreed to design the interchange in a way that does not prevent future design changes to other parts of the highway.

The organizations have identified 18 stakeholder groups among the public but are still figuring out how they will solicit feedback. They envision a rebuild like this to take about 15 years, taking a segmented approach, said Kevin Osburn, an urban designer with Rundell Ernstberger and a member of the coalition.

The groups acknowledge that this kind of work may not be taken up for another decade or longer.

“We know at some point you’re gonna have to address these,” said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer at Indy Chamber. “When you do, let’s not just do the same old thing. Let’s think about how to enhance quality of life, rectify some of the racial injustices of the past.”

Duncan called the Inner Loop Visionary Study “thoughtful” and “forward-looking,” noting it’s still very preliminary.

“As with any effort to redesign and reconstruct major infrastructure, much additional planning, public involvement, impact review, and engineering development would need to be done before INDOT could react to factors such as design, cost and feasibility,” she said.

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13 thoughts on “Indianapolis group wants sections of I-65, I-70 underground

  1. If we could all go back time to make this MASSIVE change to the inner loop highway, sure it would benefit the city. I think the big is per usualy COST. Just stick everything underground for ____ of dollars. It’s unlikely IDOT get behind this idea since traffic is already terrible while completing the north spit section.

    1. It’ll be another 100 years before our city is populated enough to make this a feasible idea

  2. 465 should have been expanded many years ago, now it will cost a fortune … but it needs to be done.

    And, yes, INDOT is all about cost. Wish they would push for higher quality roads that don’t have to be reconstructed every few years, but something tells me the highway construction lobby likes it that way…

  3. The northwest and northeast sides of I-465 are an embarrassment. The two lane ramp on the northwest side should have be replaced years ago. I-465 and I-69 interchange also should have been replaced years ago. Not sure why we don’t have the funds to improve I-465 entirely. This should have been complete prior to closing the inter loop.

    1. Good points Robert. The fact INDOT refuses to doing anything about the antiquated I-465 & I-69 interchange mess on the northeast side pretty much says it all. The “Rethink” folks need to look for another cause and quit wasting other people’s time.

    2. Restoring millions of dollars to the tax rolls isn’t a waste of time. What is a waste of time is the politicians who continue to refuse to properly fund infrastructure. We could have nicer roads but we are too cheap as a state to do it. Thats why as a state we have to bribe companies to locate here with tax incentives, nothing about Indiana screams to anyone “man, I should move my business here.” It’s no accident that people around the state are moving to the parts of the state where cities/towns are spending money and fleeing the rotting rural parts of Indiana. That’s the bottom line.

      We’d be better off if we hadn’t prioritized out of state traffic driving through downtown to save a couple minutes and instead spent that money on 465. Tear out all the interstates within two miles of the circle. Use what’s left to get people TO downtown fast, not THROUGH downtown fast.

    3. Well, since the detour for I-70 through traffic is now the south leg of 465, I don’t understand why INDOT didn’t increase it to 4 through lanes both directions (same as the north side) prior to closing the inner loop. The result is congestion at all hours from Kentucky Ave. all the way around to I-74/Shadeland/Brookville on the east side.

    4. No no, they’re widening that stretch of 465 that AFTER they finish the inner loop due to I-69.

      If they’d have widened 465 first, that would have made traffic flow better and maybe it would have shown that the inner loop wasn’t really needed.

      But if you do it the way they planned it, it makes people actually want the inner loop to be done.

      All I know is that whomever does scheduling for INDOT must ride a bike to work because they don’t apparently actually commute.

  4. Nothing like beating another dead horse that the rethink folks must think is cool and hip! I also find their numbers misleading and possibly untrue!. They got INDOT to make serious changes we may regret in 5 years, but at least it will all be new again. Yes on the semi trucks, way too many going through downtown and now way way way too many on 465 during the north split closure with SR37 under construction. The north 69-465 interchange also needs a massive redesign and reconstruction. The step by step piecemeal approach only makes it obsolete before its even built. Maybe the new ‘infrastructure’ funding will allow it? Probably not since Indiana is not a Biden state.

    1. They’ve closed downtown interstates 3 times in the past 15 years – Hyperfix, to lower the road because the bridges weren’t high enough, and now the north split for 18 months.

      If downtown interstates are that essential, how come they can be closed this often and this long?

  5. The depressed freeway idea is not new. When the extension of I-65 and I-70 through Indianapolis was proposed, neighborhoods balked due to the massive impact primarily to low income and minority area which were not rich, but were solid working-class communities of homeowners. Recognizing that the so-called roadway improvements would be built regardless of opposition, the neighborhoods pleaded with the DOT for a depressed design with more frequent crossings to maintain neighborhood connectivity and cohesiveness. This was to no avail as the constituents, many of modest income and many minority, had no clout to effect a change in route or design as did prosperous neighborhoods to the north and northeast — the is not and will not be a freeway straight north from downtown through Butler-Tarkington and Meridian-Kessler.

    I-65 sweeps a hideous swath diagonally across the grid street network in near-northwest Indianapolis creating a maze of dead-end streets and circuitous movements for residents, first responders, and emergency vehicles. The thriving Fletcher Place neighborhood was bisected by the disastrous design of the I-65/I-70 south split, a hapless network of poorly planned ramps and curves which continues to cause accidents.

    While cost indeed is a key factor, it need not the final determination. Bad planning and design, such as exemplified by Indianapolis freeways and Indiana roadway planning is indicative of a state that always seeks the cheapest way, opting for short-term benefits while ignoring long-term cost. Yet, there’s less: politicians defining plans and modes without expertise or understanding of transportation planning or design, long term cost, or federal funding requirements.

    Depressing sections of interstates is not an unattainable or unaffordable. Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Atlanta — for example — implemented depressed freeways initially. Minneapolis and Washington DC implemented tunnel segment in historic areas and those with historic views. Yes, some aspects of urban environment are indeed important and worth saving. Denver will depress the current elevated section of I-70 east of downtown to improve neighborhood cohesiveness. Columbus, OH can point to a section of overbuild above a freeway that is a vibrant and active roadway.

    Elevated freeway are eyesores, absolutely hideous in most cases, and perhaps cheaper to construct but the opportunity cost is extravagant.

    Freeway interchanges in the Indianapolis area suffer from poor design. Instead of initially building fully directional interchanges at key junctions such as I-70, I-69, and I-65 with I-465, IDOT continues with inefficient [but cheap] 1950’s loop designs. I-69, the major trucking corridor between Canada and Mexico, will feed into I-465 however capacity along the south and east legs of I-465 is insufficient and the out-of-date, under-capacity, inefficient, and unsafe I-69/I-465 interchange completely unsuited for anticipated demand.

    Indiana is a poster child of poor planning and and bad infrastructure. Many politicians, businesses, and citizens have proposed changes to improve this sad state, but too many so-called leaders in the political sphere a busy voicing totally unsubstantiated [read: false] claims, advancing ridiculous theories, and ignoring what the state and its citizens — all citizens — need for growth in jobs and revenue; for improvement of education, healthcare, and safety; and for long-term expansion of opportunities. What are the senators actually doing for Indiana. The folks sent to Washington are the issue, not the city itself.

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