Indiana Commerce Connector back in play?

The Indianapolis Star is reporting that a long dormant plan for an outer belt Indianapolis freeway may have new life. The idea which was introduced in 2006 and shot down, seems to have some new-found support in the Indiana State Legislature. Billed by Senator Luke Kenley as a way to relieve congestion and improve the economic development landscape, the Commerce Connector would be constructed at an estimated $1.5 billion dollars.

Indiana Commerce Connector (image credit: INDOT report)
Indiana Commerce Connector (image credit: INDOT report)

For the uninformed, see the map above which traces a rough route miles from Indianapolis through what is primarily farmland. The road would intersect with small outlying towns which, in most cases, are far enough out as to not even be considered suburbs of the metro area.

First and foremost, the road is touted as an economic development tool that, arguably, does not fulfill a need for Central Indiana. Indeed, we currently benefit from a number of (recently) improved freeways that trace out in spokes. One does not need to dig far to find a news report where newly relocated industries cite our currently excellent highway and freight rail access as reasons for moving here. Reaching back to 2006, a memo was published by then Governor Daniels. The memo itself is difficult to locate at the time, but Inside Indiana Business has good coverage of the memo. Within, there is not a clearly identified “need”; the memo moves past the need (something all major infrastructure projects must provide up front) and describes how it would be financed and how it would improve the communities that it bisects.

Perhaps, to me, the most troubling portion of this memo is how it contradicts itself. According to the one of the listed benefits in the memo,

“The Indiana Commerce Connector would link economic growth centers such as Martinsville, Franklin, Shelbyville, Greenfield and Pendleton for future development. It would be a short distance from the new Honda plant in Greensburg and would link with I-70 near the Indianapolis International Airport. Of the 10 largest new Indiana Economic Development Corporation investments in recent months, nine are located within 10 miles of an Indiana interstate.”

Let’s think about this for a second. Look at the map. The Indiana Commerce Connector (ICC) would travel from small Pendelton to Martinsville, which, except for Martinsville, already have interstate access. Do these small, outlying communities require 2 bisecting freeways to provide economic development opportunities? Is it worth expending huge sums of money and effort based upon presumptive arrival of business? Are the current metro area job centers not performing at a high enough level? Is further separation from the skilled labor in the region required to gain maximum economic benefit?

The report from Indystar goes further, citing supportive rhetoric from some key state legislators, implying that the Commerce Connector would be a toll road of some sort based on how well the lease of the Indiana Toll Road in northern Indiana has panned out. That is almost acceptable however, until one makes the case that a new outer belt would provide further competition with Indianapolis and the already decentralized nature of the jobs in the region; most of which are inaccessible my current public transit.

With the recent upending of HB1011 in committee last week by some of the same Senators cited as supporting the commerce connector, it really calls into question the motives behind the neutering of the transit bill. As far as the public knows, there are no specific targets for the commerce connector except some vague references to warehousing and logistics benefiting from the road. If built, and logistics warehouses are the target workforce to attract, would we only be exacerbating the issue we have now in places like Plainfield and Greenwood where large areas of warehouses with low wage jobs are located and which lack public transit to get workers to them? Is this not the same problem we are attempting to solve with the transit bill? The right to GET to work?

After some further investigation, there is even some engineering and planning to back up why the commerce connector is not needed. It was the subject of a study performed by INDOT in 2005 called CISTMS (Central Indiana Suburban Transportation & Mobility Study) (click to open link to INDOT page) which had several significant findings. Per the report,

“In summary, CISTMS models indicate that a full outer freeway belt would not divert significant volumes of traffic from other congested facilities. Nor would it stimulate significant land use changes in the corridors served….”

That alone is significant yet does not address the job creation being touted by the current effort to move the connector forward. The report continues,

“Forecasts indicate that it will literally be decades before growth and development pushes the urban fringe to the CISTMS study corridors. Even then, there is no indication that an outer belt will be needed”

This study, while a few years old, is telling. While INDOT did not perform the work (a private subcontractor is hired for this sort of study), the data tells us that this expensive project is not needed. Yet, we have a local transit study, vetted by thousands of residents and some of the biggest pro-business organizations in the state, being questioned by the same few key people who are not convinced of the findings.

I could go on about how unjust the situation seems, but at this point the holes are big enough to speak for themselves. Are these Senators privy to some information the rest of us aren’t? Are there some well funded businesses pushing the commerce connector as a way to fill a few contracts and attract a few more low wage jobs? Jobs that urban workers might want to use transit to get to if they were to locate in the current and ample land already available in the urbanized region? As an Indiana resident who has been following state transportation policy decision making long enough, I fear we may have a chance of seeing legislation bring this project to fruition. I hope for the region’s sake, that I am wrong.

Comments 18

  • Terrible news for Indiana-no-place. So now that we put BRT and light rail behind another 50 years…let us gather our most conservative ‘reds’ and build a multi billion dollar road to no where. For what? Well basically to do exactly opposite of what they claim. Time to move out of this state?

  • I’d like to see someone connect the dots on who owns the farmland where this road could end up.

  • So the state senate questions the fiscal soundness of a $1.3 billion dollar comprehensive transit plan, but has no problem putting $1.5 billion toward an unnecessary road project that will have a massively negative ROI.

    This is what passes for fiscal conservatism around here?

    • Economic development = more congestion, more sprawl development, more low wage jobs, more McDonalds, more pollution, more obesity, more gas stations, more brain drain, more ‘SUNSET BY THE BAY’ in the middle of cornfield houising, more…whatever: I’m done envisioning INDIANA’s FISCAL CONSERVATIVE PLAN FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.

      Welcome to Indianer, Folks!!!

      • “The right to get to work”…..never heard of it.
        Confusion of what your rights really are is a big problem of the current generation.

  • One nitpick: in most cases, the urban fringe is already at or near the location of this outerbelt. There is already more or less continuous development out I-69 north, I-70 east, I-65 south, and I-70 west to the proposed commerce connector junctions. (This is less true with the Martinsville SR37/I-69 leg.) The urban fringe got to these locations by following the existing interstates, as Curt points out.

    Yes, continuously urbanizing all the vacant land inside this new loop would take decades, but economic development wouldn’t happen on most of the “interior” tracts. A truth of economic geography: busy crossroads, intersections and interchanges are always the most valuable locations and many of those are already developed. The land development value of a new road is almost always the new crossroads, as Micah points out above.

    • Case in point: there is still farmland inside Marion County very near 465, in some cases visible from the highway…very near, but not easily accessible: South Bluff Rd., East Hanna Ave., Rawles Ave.,

  • Is this a joke?

  • It would be interesting to see how much Luke Kenley, etc get from the highway lobby.

  • Suggested edit : s/exasperating the issue/exacerbating the issue/

    See paragraph with link to HB1011.

  • What a joke. $1.5B buys significant investments in sustainable transportation linking downtown to BR, Fishers and Carmel; it would also go a long way towards establishing dedicated high speed freight corridors. Or you could say to hell with all of that and easily upgrade Chicago-Indianapolis passenger rail links for around the same price.

    I can’t help but remember Aaron Renn’s “Why I’m Leaving” post from a few months ago. I would like to stay and fight to make my home better, but I don’t want to waste my whole life doing it. It’s a highly competitive world and members of the General Assembly (along with a depressing percentage of Indiana residents) don’t seem to understand how far advanced other cities/economies are. The pace of change in Indiana is glacial. So depressing.

    • I guess this would be a good reason to leave. It is what it is: a disgrace and blessing all in one. Wait? Did we figure out if this was a joke yet?

    • When I moved to Indianapolis, I thought it could be more rewarding to live/work somewhere that wasn’t seen as one of the most progressive cities when it comes to urban planning/design/transportation etc., because one could possibly have a greater impact on creating positive change. Of course, many years later, I’m frustrated by the very limited impact that I’ve had.

      So, the questions I have are: “Have I just been a failure, or was it simply not possible to achieve my goals here? Should I somehow figure out how to work harder and smarter to shape Indianapolis into the city I’d love to live in, or should I just cut my losses and try to find a job in a more progressive city where I can enjoy a higher quality of life even if I don’t feel as so that city truly needs me?”

      I’m just one person, so if I leave Indianapolis, it certainly won’t mean a lot. But how many more people like me are out there? How many more like Aaron Renn, and like Plutocalypse Now? How many more people adding their own “Why I Don’t Live in Indianapolis” stories will it take for those in the power structure of Indianapolis to really see a need for significant change?

  • For the range of outright fiscal conservatives to environmental liberals, this project is a terrible idea. Environmental and farming concerns should speak for themselves, as should planning concerns (no good planner would consider the ICC a good idea I don’t believe, but there’s not a whole lot of great urban planning around this area on the whole). For fiscal conservatives, the costs would never come close to justifying this highway — not to mention the number of low-wage jobs that would take forever to materialize. In Morgan County alone, the number of hills and ravines would make the project costs soar (and with it being a very rural area, little benefit would be had for getting “people to work”). As it is now, the counties surrounding Indianapolis are already individually building a belt system of roadways:

    ICC was a bad idea years ago, and it still a bad idea today. This project could only be loved by those who would make a good profit off of it, which is the Indiana way nowadays. How much would change if the belt was to make a full wrap-around through Noblesville (I believe Sen. Kenley’s from Noblesville, right?) and the rest of Hamilton County?

  • This is a great idea. They should continue the loop around the north side of Indy. Build it now so the taxpayers can save money. If you wait until the area is built up, it will be too expensive. All through truck traffic should be routed on the ICC.

    This is a separate issue from light rail. Light rail is a loser. One line from Noblesville to Indy is a waste of money. It will not be used at any rate that will help sustain the system. Indy needs to look at a mass transit system that could be integrated throughout the region. Skytran is the answer. It addresses the concerns of Americans. It goes where you want, when you want, without stops in private pods at 100mph. Indy will never be Chicago and will never have the density necessary for a light rail system. Skytran could probably be built out 50 miles from Indy in every direction for $1B. It has a much smaller footprint, would provide access to nearly everyone and could get you to within a quarter mile of where you want to go. It can be integrated right into shopping malls, grocery stores, work locations, subdivisions, arenas, domes, airports, concert venues etc. A public/private venture could get this done. Many private businesses might invest in hubs at their location. Light rail is old technology and a worthless investment for Indy.

  • As for the matter of mass transit, I thing indy should look to the St Louis Metro-Link model. It serves the entire metro area to include points into Illinois such as Scott AFB.

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