INDOT seeking more public input on future of urban interstates

As they embark on a new vision for the interstates that run through Indianapolis, state transportation officials say they hope to learn from past mistakes by making community engagement a focal point of the planning process.

On Thursday, the Indiana Department of Transportation shared details of what it called the ProPEL Indy study—PEL stands for Planning and Environmental Linkage—that will explore the future of the interstate system in Indianapolis, considering factors like quality of life, equity, economic opportunity, mobility and safety.

The agency will work with Indianapolis-based engineering firm HNTB to look at nearly the entirety of the city’s interstates, excluding the North Split and a segment of Interstate 65 south of downtown where another project is already in design with help from a $2 million federal grant.

Urban planners involved in the study say the information-gathering process could serve as a model for other major cities.

“This has an opportunity to not only create a bold solution for central Indiana, but it allows us to make this a national example of how transportation agencies do this on a national level” said Tim Miller, HNTB senior project manager.

Rather than holding traditional town hall meetings or informational sessions, officials say they plan to attend street festivals, fairs, city markets and other neighborhood gatherings to talk to residents who might not be aware of the study.

INDOT officials said those interactions will begin in July and continue through next summer, with cost estimates for the project coming in May 2025.

Urban interstates divided communities

When Indianapolis’ “inner loop” of interstates 65 and 70 was completed in 1975, thousands of residents were displaced and Black neighborhoods torn apart. Urban planners at the time hadn’t considered the impact such a project would have on longtime residents in those areas.

“We recognized with the original construction of the interstate system, there weren’t the same types of considerations and processes,” said INDOT Deputy Chief of Staff Scott Manning.

When INDOT released its plans in 2017 for the north split of interstates 65 and 70, the agency received pushback from community members who feared that history was repeating itself. In response to those criticisms, the agency adjusted its plans by scrapping additional lanes, wider shoulders and higher retaining walls that were part of the original proposal.

Critics of the original proposal came together to form the Rethink 65/70 Coalition, which offered an alternative vision for the city’s interstate system.

In partnership with the Indy Chamber, the group put together a $2.8 billion proposal to rebuild the highways partially underground, arguing that the changes would physically connect communities and leave more room for economic development and green space. The plan also involved consolidating ramps and replacing distributor roads with multi-modal boulevards to include biking and walking lanes.

INDOT Commissioner Mike Smith said Thursday that the agency will consider those ideas as part of the Indy ProPEL study.

“All options are on the table, and we’re trying not to come with preconceived notions,” Smith said.

By Peter Blanchard of Indianapolis Business Journal.