Editorial: Lilly Endowment, Indy Chamber step up to facilitate study of inner loop rebuild

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Rebuilding the network of highways that loop downtown is a massive, high-stakes project with economic development and quality-of-life implications for the entire region. It deserves a thorough vetting, and it’s finally poised to get one.

The Indy Chamber Foundation announced earlier this month that Lilly Endowment has pledged $475,000 to fund a comprehensive study of the 50-year-old downtown highway system, known as the inner loop, which is about to be reconstructed.

The study, to be conducted this year by global design and engineering firm Arup Advisory Inc., will be led by the Chamber Foundation and the Rethink 65/70 Coalition, the grassroots group formed two years ago to press for an inclusive planning process.

It will involve business and civic groups, major downtown employers, city government, the office of the governor, the Indiana Department of Transportation, and associations representing neighborhoods adjacent to the inner loop.

The resulting report will include information on project costs; traffic flow and safety; air quality; and impacts on neighborhoods, businesses and downtown mobility. It will weigh the pros and cons of recessing the highway below grade vs. rebuilding the interstate in elevated form. The study won’t include the northeast corner of the inner loop and portions of its north and east legs. Planning for that section, known as the north split, is too far along to be reconsidered, according to the state.

That’s unfortunate. Ideally, a broad look at alternatives, with input from diverse stakeholders, would have come sooner in the process of planning the reconstruction of a roadway that was controversial to begin with.

Creation of the inner loop in the 1960s pitted the city, which opposed the plan, against a state intent on helping realize the federal government’s vision: uninterrupted ribbons of interstate highway from coast to coast.

The inner loop bulldozed a wide path through the city’s urban core, flattening historic buildings and wiping out and dividing neighborhoods so that cars and trucks could drive quickly through downtown, not within it.

Five decades later, state road planners were poised to double down on the damage the inner loop caused by making it even wider and more disruptive. Planning for reconstruction of the north split was far along when community stakeholders sounded the alarm in early 2018.

Their intervention and INDOT’s willingness to listen led to designs for the north split that are more sensitive to neighboring homes and businesses. Now, thanks to Lilly Endowment’s involvement, the Arup study sets the table for future phases of the project on the northwest and south sides of downtown to be more helpful than harmful to their surroundings.

The participation of Lilly Endowment and Indy Chamber speaks volumes about the importance of getting reconstruction of the inner loop right. We hope the study they have made possible is thorough and objective.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The results will affect decisions that are likely to influence downtown’s built environment and economic development potential for the next half century.•


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