Tag Archives: interstates

Indiana Doesn’t Do New

Residents of Indiana’s urban areas will tell you that one of the more annoying features of Hoosier life is a state government in thrall to rural interests.

Indiana has a significant urban/rural cultural divide. Our legislature–which for years has been gerrymandered in ways that significantly favor rural Republican areas–resents the fact that Indianapolis is the state’s economic driver, and routinely screws us over.

State agencies, for their part,  vary in their approach to the needs  of urban Hoosiers.

Nowhere is the disconnect between state and city more striking than the incomprehension of urban realities displayed by Indiana’s Department of Transportation. I’ve posted previously about the conflict between the city and the state over the latter’s planned repair of the aging interstates that cut through and deface residential and historic districts in the central city.

When I read this recent article from Forbes, I thought about the reluctance of Indiana’s DOT to actually engage with the group of planners, architects and residents who came together to try to explain why elevated highways, interchanges and walls designed for country interstates create huge problems in cities.

The interstate highway system is over 50 years old and many portions of the system need repairs or upgrades. As we debate the future of the interstate highway system in light of advances in smart infrastructure and autonomous and electric vehicles, it’s worth considering whether some portions of the system should be removed, especially urban portions that are underused or harmful to the vitality of cities.

The article recognizes and recounts the many benefits of the Interstate system. Interstates have played an important part in the nation’s economic growth. But as the article notes,

The highway system is great for facilitating travel between metro areas and states and faster travel times are what make the system so valuable. But the system doesn’t need to be in its current form to serve this purpose. Several stretches of highway within cities’ boundaries do little to facilitate inter-state travel and come with a host of negative impacts on the cities that contain them….

Economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow estimates that on average the construction of one interstate highway through a central city caused an 18% drop in that city’s population between 1950 and 1990. The economic explanation is that the highway decreased commuting times, which allowed people to live farther from the city. Furthermore, the decrease in the price of commuting freed up money that could be used on other things, including more space. And since people really value space—think about how the average home size changes with income—this increased the demand for space and led to more suburbaniza­tion and a decline in population density as people consumed more land and built bigger homes.

Population loss wasn’t the only result of highways running through the cores of cities. Entire neighborhoods were razed to make room for highways, destroying homes, businesses, and urban amenities….Highways also became barriers between neighborhoods, cutting people off from job opportunities and retail options. There’s also evidence that air pollution from highways negatively impacts student outcomes in nearby schools.

Highways that bisect cities create barriers that hinder interactions between people on either side. They also take up valuable real estate that could be used for more housing, businesses, or amenities, such as parks, that make cities more appealing places to live and work.

The article’s conclusion, ironically, echos the approach preferred by Indianapolis and rejected by the state’s DOT. (In fairness, DOT did retreat from its original plan to add lanes and huge buttressing walls…)

Several highways running through cities could be removed without adversely affecting the overall system, and removal would clear the way for a new period of urban revitalization. A system of smaller, lower-speed boulevards would still enable travel through city centers without the noise, pollution, and unsightliness of today’s high-speed highways. It’s time to try something new.

And I’m sure some states will actually work with their cities to do that. Indiana, not so much.

 

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish: Zillionth Example

Today I’m delivering a brief Treatise on Government (apologies to John Locke…)in the form of a case study.

Fifty years ago, when interstates were first constructed, two were built through an Indianapolis downtown that had been largely abandoned for the suburbs–a downtown dramatically different from today’s vibrant city center. The routing decisions made at that time divided neighborhoods, exacerbated public safety problems, and delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown.

Fifty years later, those interstates and their bridges are deteriorated and require repair. The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) has proposed to make those repairs, and in the process to further widen the interstate lanes and bridges and buttress them with enormous, dystopian concrete walls.

Thanks to the need for extensive and costly repairs, Indianapolis has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically improve a thoroughly dysfunctional system. A thoughtful revamping could improve traffic flow and restore community connectivity and walkability; it could also spur economic development that would significantly add to the city’s tax base. (Nothing to sneeze at, given our fiscal constraints.)

It is rare that a city gets an opportunity like this. Whatever decisions are made now will be in place for at least fifty to sixty years, so you would think that careful planning would be undertaken, to ensure that any project fixes current problems and is consistent with the city’s quality of life and transportation goals.

Thus far, however, both INDOT and the Mayor’s office have seemed disinterested in engaging in such a planning process, or considering anything other than a routine, “off the shelf” (and very expensive) repair and lane widening project that will simply lock the current problems into place.

In response to that disinterest, a group of planners, architects, landscape architects and residents who have made significant investments in the city center have come together to propose two potential alternatives to the currently proposed approach, and are urging INDOT to analyze and consider those alternatives.

Both alternatives would free up considerable acreage for commercial development that would add to the city’s tax base, while the plan currently being considered would substantially reduce the assessed value of a large number of properties, as well as the desirability of significant portions of downtown’s residential and historic neighborhoods. The alternatives would also mitigate noise and air pollution, which are a problem currently and which would be worsened by the addition of lanes.

When the current interstate routes were chosen, Indianapolis had no historic districts; today, those interstates disrupt five such districts. In our city, as elsewhere,  historic district designations have generated an enormous amount of investment. Property values have continued to rise due to the attractiveness, walkability and residential character of those districts.

We would be crazy not to protect these municipal assets.

Fifty years ago, mistakes were made. Indianapolis has a rare opportunity to correct those mistakes. It remains to be seen whether our city and state governments are willing to listen to the hundreds of residents and businesses that will be affected by the decisions being made–whether they will be responsive both to their citizens and to the data, and flexible enough to adjust a business-as-usual approach when the data indicates it will exacerbate those initial mistakes.

Why is this my “case study”?

I post a lot about national policies on this blog, and obviously, I think those policies are important. But decisions like those in my case study are where the rubber meets the road, as the saying goes. Everyday decisions, made by government agency employees and implemented by elected officials–Mayors and Governors–are enormously consequential for our day-to-day lives.

Providing disruptive and/or dysfunctional infrastructure, starving public schools of resources, failing to provide adequate public safety and other public services–all these things diminish our property values and degrade our quality of life. They’re important.

Hell, they’re critical.

Ultimately, that’s what governing is all about. It’s not glamorous.  It’s not about pomp and circumstance. It’s about the day-to-day grunt work necessary to provide a federal, state or local socio- political infrastructure that enhances the lives of citizens. I know Donald Trump doesn’t understand that, but most of the rest of us do.

Whether our state and local elected leadership recognizes the importance of these issues is an open question. When we know the answer, I’ll share it.