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.
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 thenÂ Governor Daniels. The memoÂ 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 areÂ inaccessibleÂ 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 exacerbatingÂ 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)Â (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 SenatorsÂ privyÂ 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.