The Original Push to Build the Highways Below-Grade: Guest Posted by Anonymous

As we have a week of numerous North Split public and committee meetings on our schedules, I can’t help but be frustrated by how quick stakeholders are to gloss over the historical implications of the original interstate development. There seems to be a general consensus that the interstate routing decisions were bad in retrospect – it tore up blocks of housing and the fabric of neighborhoods, resulting in an economic decline for numerous downtown neighborhoods. It pushed out families. It demolished historic buildings. It erased history. Yet discussions continue today about potentially expanding the downtown highway system (but it’s in the state’s right-of-way, so it shouldn’t be an issue, right?) Whether or not the highway takes up additional square footage on a berm, there are legitimate economic, quality of life, connectivity, design/aesthetics, and historic preservation concerns that should be fully considered before moving forward. So let’s explore some of the original feedback and criticism during the 1960s. There is a great deal of historical documentation out there for the issues related to the interstate construction, but for this blog I want to focus on the feedback in regards to building above grade (elevated) or below grade (depressed). What we ultimately got was an entirely above grade system except for a few blocks of the South Split section, which is below grade.

Many groups and residents proposed the entire inner loop to be built below grade. Livable Indianapolis For Everyone Inc. (LIFE), a local advocacy group fronted by philanthropist Allen Clowes, recommended an entirely below grade system because an elevated highway would create a visual barrier; LIFE also argued for a route through less populated areas to avoid mass relocations (“Foes of Inner Loop Urge City Council to Join Fight,” Indianapolis News, 6/15/1965; “Plans of ‘Inner Loop’ Foes Snag,” Indianapolis Star, 6/15/1965).
Image Credit: Indianapolis News 6/15/1965
Image Credit: Indianapolis News 6/15/1965


Image Credit: Indianapolis News 6/15/1965
Local African American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, mirrors these sentiments for a below grade system. U.S. House Representative Andrew Jacobs, Jr., studied engineering reports on the project and was quoted as saying “…the depressed route always appeared to me as the least offensive to the economic, traffic, social, and aesthetic life of our city…” (“Inner Loop Project Hinges on ‘Pro or Con’ Influences,” Indianapolis Recorder, 6/26/1965).
A few months later, the opposition continued to advocate for the below grade system and route changes. Other cities that built elevated highways were beginning to observe a blight effect. Could it be possible to improve flooding and sewer systems while constructing a below grade system? And perhaps most poignant was Rep. Andrew Jacobs’ observation on highway plans that place the motorist over the resident: “You appear concerned that depressed highways might interfere with the interstate traveler’s view as he whizzes past our city at 50 or 60 mph. I am more concerned about the people of Indianapolis who will be forced to live forever with the ugly scar of an elevated highway blocking their view of our skyline and monuments if present design plans for the inner loop prevail.” (“Inner Loop–Pro and Con,” Indianapolis News, 9/20/1965).
Image Credit: Indianapolis Star 9/20/1965
The City Council (not quite the City-County Council yet) also endorsed for a below grade system by passing an ordinance calling on the inner loop to be depressed and rerouted west of the North Split. (“Inner Loop Controversy,” Indianapolis News, 12/8/1965). Listening to downtown constituents, the opposition grew on the local and state level. By December of 1965, the Indianapolis Delegation brought its concerns to the Indiana General Assembly, signing a resolution that echoed that of the City Council’s. State Representative Robert V. Birdwell, with the foresight of half a century, stated that INDOT’s proposed plan “…could do a lot of lasting damage to our city. No consideration was given to the overall planning and to the people who will have to live with this thing.” (“Present I-65 Design Blasted by Ind. Solons,” Indianapolis Recorder, 12/25/1965.)
So what lessons can be learned by studying the concerns of downtown residents, neighborhoods, businessesand organizations? There are a lot of large numbers being thrown at us, perhaps in an attempt to overwhelm us with costs. These numbers only represent the construction and do not consider any captured revenues from redevelopment in the ROW. I can’t help but wonder how much money we could have saved today if INDOT and the State of Indiana had listened to the downtown constituents who pushed for the entire inner loop to be constructed below grade.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
Editor’s Note: Please keep this history in mind with regards to INDOT’s current system-level analysis. They are estimating the costs of construction, but not the costs of potential quality-of-life or economic development potential along the corridor.

Comments 13

  • Thanks for the history lesson! Most valuable and much appreciated.

  • So…underground. It’s a giant geophysics “problem”.

    Consider that the main storm drain for the south part of downtown is the Pogue’s Run Box Culvert, which starts just behind Flat 12, runs under the railroad viaduct around the SW side of downtown, then veers south under Meridian to Merrill, then under the corner of LOS, and finally zigzags to White River south of McCarty.

    The elevation of Pogue’s Run where it enters its box culvert a block or so east of I-65/70 is 708 ft. above sea level. The box culvert flows into White River at about 668 ft. So it falls 40 feet in a run of about 2 miles (10,500 ft.)…about half an inch per foot of run. But it falls.

    First Issue: The ground-level elevation of New York St. where it passes under the interstate is about 714 ft. That’s only 6 feet higher than the culvert…which means that a depressed highway along the east side of downtown could only be depressed a little more than 6 feet where it goes over Pogue’s Run at Ohio St. That’s not enough to bury the interstate, much less get it under the rail line.

    Second Issue: The Citizens Energy steam/chilled water loop is just one of many pieces of infrastructure that crosses underground under the current elevated interstate. There are sewers, storm sewers, etc. Most importantly, the storm sewers flow west to Fall Creek, which is at 680 feet there. Assuming storm drains along a depressed interstate would have to fall a half-inch per foot, it’s 1.5 miles from the North Split to Fall Creek, which means the lowest drain at the North Split would need to be at least 33 feet higher, or 713 feet. Central Avenue is at 720 feet going under I-65…only 7 feet above that. Not enough to bury it under all the streets that currently cross under.

    My longtime conclusion is that until someone figures out a way to make water flow uphill into Central Indiana’s rivers, we’re not likely to have below-grade interstates downtown.

    • Thanks Chris. Is it possible have a mix of over and below…such as where Fletcher and Virginia cross?

      I was afraid of the hydrology issue.

      • Or, can you tunnel under the river and chilled water loop?

        • Steam loops need to be fairly close to level because the return run is water. I’m not enough of a thermodynamic engineer to know if there is an engineering solution to attaching the lines to bridges across the interstate, or if they could be looped under, or possibly be re-routed west to take advantage of where 65 crosses Fall Creek by Methodist.

          Shallow tunneling is a little trickier, because the geology is “sand and gravel deposits”; you’ve got to go down quite far to hit the limestone layer. So a shallow tunnel would end up being cut and fill, and there would be non-trivial water-infiltration issues to deal with.

          Also problematic is that the route of 65 west of Illinois and around the bend northward to 26th St. is in a Wellfield Protection District, which means that the underground water that would seep into the tunnel there is also part of our drinking water supply…turning an asset into a disposal problem.

          I think the only real alternative is surface boulevards plus significant widening of 465 on the south side (from 3 to 4 or 5 through lanes and de-bottlenecking the junctions at 65 and 31 by removing or upgrading the left-entry flyover ramps).

  • Appreciate the historical info, but let’s be careful not to frame this as either/or – as either above ground or below ground. There’s at least one more option: Neither. Like San Francisco, we can remove the freeway entirely.

    • Absolutely right Andy. The whole underground proposal is totally unrealistic and distracts from the real conversation.

      We should be focusing on the most realistic scenario with the best outcome, which (IMHO) is a combination of re-routing through traffic around 465, the surface boulevard proposal, and getting people out of their cars with better public transit and a bike lane system that isn’t laughable. Disincentives like tolls and incentives like TOD TIF money would help too.

  • I would have to agree with Andy. Building it through the city at all is an unnecessary duplication of resources.

    If you reroute all of that traffic around 465 you move Indy from light traffic to the moderate to heavy traffic category (please see link below). This only occurs twice a day and it is on and off in less than 3 hours.

    This is an expensive solution to something that is a non-issue 75% of the time. Further improvements to I-465 and surrounding interstates could continue to improve our traffic flows at peak times and add real financial value to the city.

    The currently planned system is a want and not a need. A well-designed system of boulevards would serve the needs of the city while adding character, increasing tax revenues, and reducing maintenance costs.

    Indy as a light commute city (link below) with good job prospects. The change outlined above would have a slight impact on commute times.
    Imagine the impact on quality of life that Indy, a light traffic commute time city now, would see by saving significant money on our road maintenance costs.

    Indy is a light commute city even while we are lacking an optimally operated mass transit system. What could a well-designed transit system with moderate to high ridership have on potential traffic congestion?

    The reclaimed land would also provide substantial tax revenues and have a moderating influence on future road maintenance costs and further increases in commuter traffic.

    • Replacing the interstate with boulevards would probably not return much real estate to non-road use. The soccer park comes right up to the North Split. And there is currently parking under the north leg that would need to be replaced by garages.

      Look at the width of West St. as an example of the boulevard ROW necessary…and West does not have a dedicated transit lane or particularly good side paths.

  • I’m not sure people know what they’re arguing for when they say “boulevard”. When the interstate spills onto a boulevard, the interstate traffic will essentially be diverted. Think west street traffic multiplied by 5-10 depending on the time of day. It would be a pedestrian nightmare. Currently you can at least walk under the interstate.

  • I think we should focus on the boulevard option, it’s indiana, they are going to pick the cheapest option (short term) no matter what… nothing else matters, not safety, not how well it functions in the end, not what it does to the city or neighborhoods. it’s all about how cheap it is, right now. and the boulevard option is the cheapest…

    • It’s only cheaper until they have to completely rebuild/widen I-465 on the south side to accommodate the through traffic.

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