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INDOT Explores New Routes for Super 70

Mon March 26, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

The words “Super 70” make many people shudder with memories of shiny disco shirts, mood rings, kung fu movies and bad music. But Super 70 evokes new fears in residents and business owners on the east side of Indianapolis. The Indiana Department of Transportation’s $175 million project designed to make major improvements on one of the state’s most heavily traveled highways should have people cheering. Instead, they’re anxiously attending meetings to learn how to cope with 10 months of disruption.

The project will implement much-needed improvements to this heavily used stretch of highway, but getting there won’t be a picnic. INDOT labeled the project “one of the most aggressive construction projects” in its history. INDOT Communications Director Andy Dietrick explained that the aggression applies to the volume of concrete expected to cover the brand new 75 lane mi. (120.7 km) from the ground up and to the timeframe. Early predictions estimate approximately 235,000 cu. yds. (179,670 cu m) of concrete, based on a calculation of four lanes and two shoulders of concrete 16 in. (40.6 cm) deep for 6.5 mi. (10.5 km) – all completed in a compressed timeframe. “It’s the same concept we used with Hyperfix, but bigger.”

Hyperfix was an ambitious and innovative 2003 INDOT one-mi.(1.6 km) interstate reconstruction project that completely closed the I-65/I-70 section on which an estimated 250,000 vehicles commuted daily. The total closure approach had never been attempted by INDOT on such a high volume artery in the downtown metropolitan area. Scheduled for 60 days, Dietrick recalls that the contractor, Walsh Construction Co., finished in 45.

Super 70 differs from Hyperfix in magnitude and timeframe. It will cover 6.5 mi. (10.5 km) and three major interchanges on I-70 and will last considerably longer. Fresh from a meeting with the general contractor, who, again, is Walsh Construction Co., in early January, Dietrick reported that Walsh is “feeling good about progress.”

Super Job

Named “Super 70” because of its size, complexity and aggressive construction schedule, the project focuses on I-70 between the north split with I-65 downtown and the east leg of I-465. Almost 180,000 vehicles use this congested stretch of outdated interstate daily. “It’s the most heavily traveled piece of road in Indiana,” Dietrick speculates.

Constructed in the early 1970s, the road has never been rebuilt. “A lane was added years ago, but the pavement is 35 years old and falling apart in chunks,” Dietrick explained. “We added a layer of asphalt last fall to hold it together until the project could get started.” According to an INDOT assessment, the pavement and bridge decks are deteriorating rapidly, the inside shoulders are too narrow, motorists have difficulty seeing around curves and vertical clearance at many of the bridges is too low.

“The name of the game here is safety, simply because of the numbers of cars and trucks using the aging roadway every day,” said INDOT Commissioner Thomas Sharp in a press release. “The cost to continue patching it from year to year just to make it safe enough for traffic is too great. It’s time to start from the ground up.”

Preliminary work began last August, conducted mostly during off-peak hours. The bulk of work on Interstate 70 has been divided into two phases and two contracts, both of which were awarded to Walsh Construction Co. Phase 1 will take place from February to July 4, 2007, and includes rebuilding the north portion of the west-bound lanes. Two-way traffic will be maintained on five lanes with a moveable barrier wall. “We used it on I-65 last year,” Dietrick said. “It was very successful.” The moveable barrier system allows the traffic pattern to shift to better maximize traffic flow, permitting three lanes of inbound traffic during morning rush hour and three lanes of outbound traffic for afternoon rush hour. “Walsh can do the lane change-out in an hour to an hour-and-a-half.” Phase 2, from July to Thanksgiving, involves building the south portion.

When complete, it will feature:

• 75 lane mi. of new pavement on inside and outside shoulders and all travel lanes

• 28 new bridge decks

• wider, safer inside shoulders — 14 ft. (4.3 m) instead of the current 7 ft. (2.1 m)

• an overpass at Sherman Drive to improve visibility and drainage (I-70 currently passes underneath Sherman Drive)

• new signage and lighting

• new pavement markings

Crews will work 24/7, first ripping out old concrete and hauling it away before they can begin pouring new concrete.

Ramping Up Means Closures

At issue is the closure of the ramps. Dietrick stressed that the north-south road will be open at all interchanges; only ramps will have restrictions. “During Phase 1, [the ramp at] Emerson will be closed. The reason is that you can’t take an off-ramp through a construction zone. It’s both a traffic flow and a safety issue. It causes back-ups. Our goal is to keep traffic moving.”

In fact, most of the ramps at Keystone/Rural, Emerson and Shadeland Avenues will be closed to traffic during construction in order to provide a safe working environment for crews as well as travelers. As Sharp expressed it, “We have a responsibility to provide as safe an environment as we can. We know there will be some disruption with the ramps closed, but it’s the safest, quickest way to rebuild the highway.”

Sharp emphasized the aggressive schedule, lauding it as the most efficient and least inconvenient plan. “We’re going to eliminate this corridor’s deficiencies in one construction season. It’s an aggressive schedule and we’re committed to staying on time. By this time next year, I-70 from the east side to downtown will be smoother, safer and better able to handle high volumes of freight and commuter traffic.”

The plan has received political backing. As part of Governor Daniels’ Major Moves transportation program, it is fully supported by the state. As reported by local TV station WTHR, Mayor Bart Peterson also approves of the rapid scheduling, although he commiserates with disgruntled constituents. “My hope is they work it out in such a way that they [INDOT] can keep the exits open some of the time and not have them all closed at the same time. But again, I recognize the difficult position they are in.”

Dietrick has been in meetings “constantly since we announced the project,” to explain the complexity and need for the project, along with ways to deal with the disruption. “We’re doing a lot of outreach!” The outreach includes six open houses, beginning January 17.

But meetings with businesses and residents have been ongoing for more than a year. Opposition has been vociferous as businesses fear devastating financial losses in a part of town already struggling economically. “If you set out to create an economic black hole on this side of the city, you couldn’t come up with a more sure way to do it,” Deanna Garner, president of Garner-Randolph Industries, told Indiana Business Journal (IBJ). Dozens of businesses have abandoned the east side in recent decades, including big box retail stores, a Chrysler parts plant, Western Electric and Eastgate Consumer Mall. This project, many speculate, could drive away even more.

Richard Judd told WTHR that his company, Lumber Liquidators, plans to move because of the project and his concerns over losing business. Another lumber company, Chisholm Lumber Supply Co., anticipates a 25 percent decrease in sales due to difficult access for suppliers and customers during construction. Doug Chisholm Sr., the company’s owner, told the IBJ that he also fears added costs from suppliers to cover the additional delivery time. “This could put me out of business.”

Community Hospital East is scheduled to open a new $7.5 million cancer treatment center in early 2007. Emergency vehicles have already plotted alternative routes, but Chief Operating Office Mark Dixon remains concerned about access for 40,000 patients and 2,800 employees.

Alternate Strategies

Of the approximately 180,000 vehicles that travel daily on the six mi. (9.7 km) soon to be under construction, Dietrick estimated that “We need to lose 50,000 vehicles.” To do that, he says INDOT plans to “divert as much traffic as possible. They can use I-465 to go around. If you use I-70 as a corridor, we encourage you to use side streets.”

According to Dietrick, INDOT has been working with the city to “beef up” intersections, add travel lanes and adjust signal timing on city streets expected to handle the majority of traffic during construction to better accommodate additional traffic and mitigate delays. Justin Ohlemiller, a spokesman for Mayor Bart Peterson, reported that improvements to alternative routes include adding or widening turn lanes, adding traffic detection loops at intersections, resurfacing streets and re-striping of some streets to add additional lanes. IBJ reported: “The projects total $1 million and include adding a second right turn lane on I-465 and Pendleton Pike, resurfacing Shadeland from 49th Street to 42nd Street and extensive work on Massachusetts Avenue. INDOT also is providing funding to the city of Indianapolis to offset the cost of changing traffic signal timing and making other necessary improvements to local roads.”

Having worked with local businesses for months, Dietrick said “they’re dealing with it. In fact, some have come up with unique solutions to get their shipments out. Along Mass Avenue, there are suppliers to the ’Big Three’ automakers and Allison that have come up with alternate solutions.” One of those solutions includes an off-site shipping location because maneuvering semi-trailer trucks through Indianapolis’ tight city streets could be an insurmountable challenge. “The idea of basically routing these semis through city streets is incredible to me,” IBJ reports Bill Updike, owner of construction equipment firm CMA Supply Equipment, stated.

Armed with a three-page list of alternate routes, Dietrick insisted closing down the highway is the only way. “We feel your pain; we live here and work here too. We know it’s hard to live through. But this is a bottom-up reconstruction and Walsh has to have free access to large stretches of the highway. The only safe way is to close roads.” The strategy allows Walsh to finish the project for less money, INDOT contended.

Choosing to look on the bright side, Dietrick said this is an “opportunity for people to get to know some of Indy’s great neighborhoods.” If that doesn’t mollify commuters, he pointed to Chicago’s recent traffic snarls during construction and compares: “Indy’s in great shape. The problem is, this project let late. It was supposed to let December 2005 and March 2006, but we didn’t sell it until August 2006. We had planned to announce it the previous January to prepare the public. Now we’re relying on the media to help get the word out about alternate routes.” CEG

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