Aptly Named FastTrack Project Speeds Ahead in Indy

Tue August 16, 2005 - West Edition
Lori Lovely

Another summer of road construction faces Hoosier motorists on Indianapolis’ northwest side as the city’s vital link between its four distinct quarters undergoes reconstruction.

Indianapolis’ Northwest FastTrack project is a three-year, $38 million effort to replace existing pavement and widen I-465 from I-65 to just north of 86th Street and add a lane in each direction from the 71st Street interchange to the 86th Street interchange.

The project also includes reconstruction of the 71st Street interchange to include a loop ramp in the northwest quadrant and a direct connection to 73rd Street in the northeast quadrant; reconstruction and widening of 71st Street from Intech Boulevard to Woodland Drive; reconstruction of the 79th Street bridge over I-465; reconstruction of 79th Street from 900 feet west to 750 feet east of I-465; and reconstruction of the 86th Street interchange to include a loop ramp in the northwest quadrant. Work began last year and is scheduled for completion in December 2006.

Increased volume necessitated the project, I-465’s first reconstruction since it was built in the 1960s.

“It has come of age,” Jessica Stevens, communications specialist and spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said of the roadway. “When the original interstates were built in the 1960s, they were expected to last about 35 years –– with good maintenance. We’ve reached that, and then some. Now they’re built to last about 50 years, so we shouldn’t have to do this again –– at least while I’m on the job. And, of course, there’s been a boom of expansion on that side of town, so there’s a lot more volume.”

According to the most recent state figures, the section of I-465 under construction carries between 92,000 and 116,000 vehicles a day, making it one of the interstate’s busiest sections. Suburban expansion west of the city and growth of the business park on the northwest side add to the traffic.

Scope of the Work

Work completed in 2004 includes removal of the existing 79th Street bridge over I-465; construction of a new wider, longer bridge that includes bike lanes; permanent widening on I-465 between 71st St. and I-65 to include an auxiliary lane each direction that directly connects ramps at I-65 to ramps at 71st Street; resurfacing of existing lanes between I-65 and 71st Street; construction of a temporary widening and median cross-over on I-465 between 71st and 86th streets for traffic maintenance during the I-465 replacement in 2005.

INDOT sought community involvement on the project, and acted on community input regarding the 79th Street bridge and other aspects of the project.

“It’s a very pretty bridge,” said Stevens. “It’s aesthetically pleasing –– not just another concrete bridge. That was important to the community. They also wanted bicycle lanes and multi-use trails on the bridge, so we incorporated their suggestions into the plan.”

The arched sides of the bridge slope inward, creating a tunnel-like feel when driving across the bridge.

Constructed of MSU, INDOT project manager Chad Nierman said it’s a very expensive bridge, and that the 71st and 86th street bridges are being constructed using the same material and method.

“Each piece is made specifically to fit together like a puzzle,” he said.

The customized bridge is a colorful one; local business owners were allowed to choose the bridge’s paint scheme: yellow and red.

A wall system replaces the existing slope system along the sides of the highway and under the bridges.

“There’s not enough slope left to be safe because we encroached on the right of way,” said Nierman.

Under the bridges, the vertical face wall system allows for expansion of additional lanes in the future. The walls are painted yellow to match the 79th Street bridge.

This year’s scheduled work entails replacing and widening I-465 between 71st and 86th streets; replacing and widening bridges; and installing new signs and lighting. Nierman explained that work on the southbound bridge structure occurs concurrently with work on the southbound lanes of I-465. He noted that road closures are scheduled at night with the permission of the city to complete bridge demolition.

When the job is done, I-465 will have four through lanes and two auxiliary lanes in each direction. Until the ramps are completed, however, only 5 lanes will be open to traffic. Both 71st and 86th streets will have two through lanes and up to three auxiliary lanes in each direction.

Aesthetic improvements include moving lighting from the sides of the highway to the center, atop the yellow wall that divides the six lanes between 71st and 86th streets. This contract, won by local contractor Walsh Construction, is due for completion on Nov. 5, 2005.

Currently, a demolition phase is underway, operating 24 hours/day to remove old concrete and steel.

“They don’t build roads this way any more,” said Nierman as he looked on at huge piles of twisted steel that will be hauled off for recycling.

Asphalt that is stripped off the old highway is hauled to an asphalt plant, also to be recycled, but the concrete is recycled on-site, pulverized by a big machine that “looks like a pipe organ” and ground up into aggregate to be re-used on the same stretch of highway.

Mindful of adjacent residential communities, INDOT contracted with Acentech to conduct a noise impact analysis. Two residential neighborhoods on the northwest quadrant of each interchange, each comprised of single-family detached homes, have several dozen homes within a few hundred feet of the project right-of-way.

It was determined that the 71st Street neighborhood is already well protected by an existing earthen berm, but that a 13-foot high noise barrier extending north from 86th Street, while providing noise reduction of 7.6 dBA, would cost $25,500 per protected dwelling. Stevens said a barrier wall is cost prohibitive.

“There’s a limit on how much we can spend per property; it’s a cost-benefit ratio. Unfortunately, homes with large lots suffer even more because large lots increase the cost ratio too much,” she said. Besides, she added, a sound barrier benefits only the properties adjacent to it.

Further, consultation with property management companies for the commercial areas along this stretch of interstate indicated their opposition to a noise barrier wall. Owners and tenants invest significant sums to assure they’re located in highly visible locations; construction of barriers along the frontage would deprive those properties of sought-after visibility.

Plans for 2006 include reconstructing the interchanges at I-465 and 71st Street and at I-465 and 86th Street. In the words of Nierman, next year will be “pretty ugly.”

The business park sees heavy traffic flow during a.m. and p.m. rush hours, and few alternative routes are easily accessible. As the old ramps are torn out during next year’s phase, Nierman explained that crews have to construct 8 short-term ramp connections that provide a separate lane of traffic while tying in to the new highway because the new lanes are higher than the previous highway. “We have to build a wedge,” he said.

A new ramp configuration will replace existing traffic lights to allow a free flow of traffic in several directions and provide improved levels of service during peak usage. In keeping with the work done on 79th Street, aesthetic enhancements will be installed through the interchanges.

In addition, 71st and 86th streets will be reconstructed from west of I-465 to east of I-465, including pavement replacement and new signs and signals. Stevens said INDOT expects to let this contract to bid in November.

Keeping Up With

the Flow

INDOT’s goal is to keep traffic disruption to a minimum throughout the project.

“Last year we inconvenienced very few while we widened the 79th Street bridge,” Stevens said. “We replaced three bridge decks under traffic conditions, using barrier walls and lane closures, but we managed to keep traffic flowing.”

Despite INDOT’s best efforts, however, major slow-downs occurred at morning and evening rush hours, and traffic continues to bottleneck during the current phase of construction.

Last year INDOT was able to detour local traffic while reconstructing the 79th Street bridge, but detours this year have been thwarted by work the city is doing on an 86th Street bridge west of the interstate that blocks one escape route for congested traffic.

Traffic on I-465 will be maintained by crossovers and lane closures. Just before the July 4th holiday weekend, Stevens happily reported that southbound traffic was being moved to some of the new southbound lanes.

As Stevens confirmed, there will be “a lot of ramp closures” to come.

Already 71st and 86th streets are restricted to two lanes, with either temporary interchange ramps or possible detours ahead when work commences on the ramps. Stevens hopes to maintain the ramps with limited, short-term closures if possible, acknowledging the heavy amount of traffic flowing into and out of the Park 100 business district at those two exits.

“I hope they don’t close both ramps simultaneously,” she exclaimed, knowing the bottleneck it would create by effectively eliminating all access to and exit from the hectic business park.

Watching the Clock and Looking Ahead

Working toward incentives worth “a couple million dollars,” according to Stevens, Walsh Construction has crews working 12-hour shifts around the clock. Nierman estimates the incentives at $50,000 per day, and says that because the project is a 90/10 arrangement, most of the funds come from federal budgets, not state.

A dry, hot summer is helping Walsh push their deadline with few delays, although minor problems with water lines and collapsed sections have arisen.

As Stevens said, “We’ve done remarkably well on the ’hiccup scale’ with minimal unexpecteds. This project will be done on schedule –– if not before. They’re moving very fast, very aggressively, doing a lot of work in a short amount of time. Considering they’re working half under traffic, it’s very impressive.”

The only hiccups Stevens can recall occurred early in the schedule, when crews discovered gas and sewer pipes didn’t run in straight lines as expected. She said they adapted quickly and resumed scheduled work.

Things aren’t going as smoothly for the long-term future. Once the FastTrack project is completed, INDOT had intended to turn its focus south on I-465 between 56th Street and Kentucky Avenue as part of the Accelerate 465 project.

But while still in the design stage, Stevens said the project was suspended due to the state’s reprioritization. As part of budget restructuring, INDOT has asked state legislators to rank local road projects in order of importance as part of a dramatic plan to reshuffle the state’s long-term construction plan.

Thomas Sharp, commissioner of INDOT, said the reordering is necessary because the state faces a $2.1 billion shortfall in its long-term construction plan that includes several long-anticipated projects –– notably, work on I-69 between Indianapolis and Evansville, reconstruction of I-465 on the southwest side, and the building of two new Ohio River bridges near Louisville.

Stagnant gasoline tax revenues, climbing construction costs, an aging network of interstates and rising congestion have contributed to the dire situation. Stevens notes that the reprioritization does not affect the FastTrack project, which appears to be headed to early completion. CEG