A big idea: Put Downtown interstates below – not above – street level

An ambitious plan to rework the Downtown interstate system below street-level would cost $500 million more than the state’s current plan – but the return on that investment includes nearly $100 million in market value for recaptured land, the potential to generate up to $2.5 billion in new real estate investment and the creation of 24,000 new jobs.

That is the thrust of the Inner Loop Visionary Study, commissioned by the Indy Chamber and the Rethink Coalition, Inc. The report also noted that the projected economic impacts could also support mechanisms (like tax increment financing) to offset the up-front cost difference.

The two local organizatons engaged Arup Inc., a globally respected engineering and transportation planning firm, to complete the study.

The Arup study shows that the 20% higher upfront cost will easily pay for itself through value-capture financing, even before considering the critical inclusive economic benefits to our region,” said Russell Menyhart, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP and co-chair of the Rethink Coalition. “Infrastructure shouldn’t be treated as a cost, but an investment. After all, none of the signature projects central Indiana is known for and that attract talent and investment – such as the Indianapolis International Airport, Convention Center, Cultural Trail, or Lucas Oil – did so by building the cheapest possible version.

The Inner Loop Visionary Study is described as a preliminary analysis comparing two feasible options for rebuilding I-65 and I-70 through Downtown Indianapolis.

The final segment of the downtown Indianapolis interstate system was completed 45 years ago, and the ‘Inner Loop’ is nearing the end of its functional life. Arup was asked to compare a rebuild “as is” option with a recessed interstate alternative that would reduce the physical footprint, reconnect downtown neighborhoods, and create development opportunities. The resulting Inner Loop Visionary Study was made possible by support from the Lilly Endowment.

The study indicated that the recessed option would remove elevated sections of interstate and rebuild them below grade on a dramatically smaller right-of-way footprint while maintaining current capacity, following cities like Denver and Cincinnati and joining Houston, Portland, and more than a dozen other communities considering similar projects. Recessed reconstruction would allow city streets to extend over the interstates, restoring connectivity between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The Arup analysis also finds that this option could reclaim 45 acres of land within the current interstate right-of-way and create up to 23 acres of additional new land by “capping” over the recessed system – creating the potential for new development, parks, or other uses.

“Reconstruction of the Inner Loop will be a massive undertaking with a once-in-a-generation chance to get it right,” noted Chamber President & CEO Michael Huber. “We’re also at a critical juncture for the post-COVID future of downtown Indianapolis, and infrastructure has to be part of our blueprint for continued growth and vitality for Indiana’s capital city and biggest urban economy.

“We need to balance total costs, transportation, and safety demands, but also prioritize inclusive economic development, connectivity, and quality of life before locking ourselves into the status quo,” Huber continued. “This study suggests a realistic system that moves traffic and attracts people and employers to a more vibrant urban center.”

The Arup team detailed the significant, sustained community and economic benefits that can be achieved with the modestly higher construction cost of a recessed system ($2.8 billion) compared to the “as is” elevated rebuild option ($2.3 billion).

Unlike the rebuild as-is option, the recessed concept generates added value through connectivity, capacity for multiple modes of transportation, enhanced safety for downtown motorists and pedestrians, new equitable development opportunities, and reduced noise and air pollution. This return on investment includes nearly $100 million in market value for recaptured land, the potential to generate up to $2.5 billion in new real estate investment and the creation of 24,000 new jobs. These economic impacts could also support mechanisms (like tax increment financing) to offset the up-front cost difference.

After current upgrades to the $280 million North Split project are complete, plans for the north (I-65), east (I-65/70), and south (I-70) legs of the Inner Loop will be developed and scheduled for construction over the next 10-20 years. To inform this process, the Indy Chamber, Rethink Coalition and other partners are starting a public conversation on a comprehensive vision for the Inner Loop now while sharing Arup’s findings with the Indiana Department of Transportation and other state and local policymakers.

“The Arup study offers a choice between ‘as is’ and a more aspirational vision for Indianapolis as a leader in post-pandemic livability and equitable infrastructure,” said Charlie Richardson, retired partner at Faegre Drinker and Rethink Coalition co-chair. “The timeline for these plans may be measured in years or even decades, but the time to start the discussion is now.”

Other key highlights of the Inner Loop Visionary Study include:

  • Design depictions of the “as-is” (elevated) versus recessed options, showing the recessed corridor consuming roughly half the width of the elevated interstate with the same number of travel lanes;
  • Initial analysis of the broader system impacts of the recessed alternative, including consolidation of on-and-off ramps and replacement of high-speed traffic distributor and collector roads with multi-modal boulevards;
  • Additional land use opportunities, greater appeal for development, and inherent safety advantages of the recessed option made possible by the accommodation of transit and more walkable and cycling-friendly features;
  • An overview of potential environmental benefits of the recessed option, including more opportunities for tree planting and park and green space along (and even over) the interstates; and
  • A leg-by-leg land use analysis of the recessed option, estimating a total of nearly 68 acres of recaptured and newly-created land from the current footprint.

“This study broadens the scorecard for evaluating major infrastructure projects,” said Huber. “Both of these options address traffic and safety issues, and Arup offers a longer-term cost calculation: Attracting $5 in new investment for every extra dollar in construction makes this an economic development win for Indianapolis – not to mention putting acres of unusable right-of-way back on the property tax rolls.”

Rethink Coalition CEO Brenda Freije added that moving forward with the recessed approach would position Indianapolis as a more connected, competitive post-pandemic city, but that community consensus is needed to seize the opportunity.

“We need a discussion around expanding the criteria we typically use for highway planning,” Freije said. “We need to count new jobs, investment and tax revenue, and reductions in noise and pollution alongside traffic volume. We have an opportunity here to embrace healthier neighborhoods, a stronger economy – and safer commutes.”

Freije also explained that while reconstruction of the Inner Loop would shape the future of Indianapolis for decades to come, plans should also reckon with the history behind the current system and leverage opportunities to address equity and inclusion through the built environment.

“The construction of the original Inner Loop displaced more than 17,000 residents and destroyed wide swaths of housing, cultural and architectural heritage,” Freije said. “The impact fell heaviest on communities of color, in ways that are still felt today. We can’t recapture what was lost, but we can act to reconnect and revitalize places where interstates have actually imposed barriers to growth.”

The full Arup report can be read and downloaded at rethink65-70.org. The Indy Chamber and Rethink Coalition are spearheading a series of briefings on its findings, and plans for public meetings and input sessions are in the works – visit rethink65-70.org and follow Rethink 65/70 on Facebook and Twitter for news and updates.

RENDERING ABOVE: How the I-65 north leg of the Downtown loop would appear if the Inner Loop Visionary Study comes to fruition.