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What you need to know about the I-65/I-70 north split controversy
Amy Bartner examines concerns surrounding the I-65/I-70 North Split for The Indianapolis Star.

The half-century-old highway system spidering through north Downtown Indianapolis is about to either be rebuilt in accordance with today's standards, or re-imagined as a new way to move traffic through the city. 

Last week, a coalition formed to demand the Indiana Department of Transportation radically rethink how I-65 and I-70 cross through Downtown, either to move the split underground or eliminate it altogether. It's a move that will impact the city's neighborhood connectivity for the next 50 years, and leaders of the coalition, Rethink 65/70, want to exhaust all options before rebuilding.

Here's what you need to know about what's happening with the north split:

Where is the north split?

It's where I-65 and I-70 meet on the city's north side, south of 16th Street, east of College Avenue, stretching south through Fletcher Place.

The decaying network of highways and 32 bridges transport more than 200,000 cars daily. 

Why does anything need to happen with it at all?

This chunk of highway has reached the end of its life, INDOT spokesman Andy Dietrick said.

Plans to repair or replace the split began in fall 2017 as roads deteriorated, potentially posing safety risks.

When was the split created?

Although planning began in the 1950s, the north split — called a "land-gulping operation" in a 1974 Indianapolis Star article — wasn't complete until 1976. A police officer at the time said the maze of interstate roads was a "disaster area" after there were a number of crashes and a fatality after its completion.

What does INDOT plan to do?

INDOT proposed its $250 million construction and planning project in the fall, initially with the scope of rehabilitating the existing infrastructure, on the same footprint, Dietrick said.

New highway technology and increased traffic patterns, though, mean INDOT would have to replace the structure to meet current standards. This could include widening roads, adding more lanes, widening the bridges, reconstructing the interchange, re-configuring ramps and adding 25-feet concrete walls known as "mechanically stabilized earth" walls.

INDOT received significant pushback from the public. That scope of the original proposal has changed to include alternatives proposed by the public. 

Wait, why were some people upset?

A group of neighborhoods, businesses, civic organizations and private citizens grew concerned about what they called the lack of transparency from INDOT on a plan they thought would harm the city's future.

When the highways were first built, they divided Downtown and the eight surrounding historic neighborhoods and pushed noise, pollution and traffic into the center of city. Rebuilding would just continue the damage caused decades ago, this group believes. 

"It was highly destructive to the Downtown neighborhoods," said Marjorie Kienle, president of Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis (HUNI). "We're still coming back from that. It still creates a huge barrier from the north to the east."

What are the alternatives?

INDOT could move traffic below ground — yes, a tunnel — to open up more land for development or green spaces.

The city could also remove the highways that cross through Downtown and incorporate roundabouts or boulevards like Portland, Milwaukee and Dallas have done.

These alternatives create a more connected Downtown, said architect Mark Beebe, a member of Rethink 65/70.

What is the Rethink 65/70 coalition?

Rethink 65/70 includes about 50 businesses near the split, HUNI's neighborhoods, and organizations such as Downtown Indy, Inc., Indiana Landmarks, Central Indiana Community Foundation, the Indiana chapter of the American Institute of Architects and others.

They hope affected residents and businesses will call on Gov. Eric Holcomb to lead an independent study to find the best alternative for the north split, and have passed out about 1,000 "Rethink 65/70" yard signs to supporters of their campaign.

How has INDOT responded to the coalition's concerns?

INDOT has altered its plans to include suggestions from the coalition, to consider more than the original one-option plan, but INDOT spokesperson Dietrick said he didn't know which specific alternatives the organization is considering. 

INDOT is still examining the environmental impacts of its original plan to rebuild the split.

Dietrick attributed much of the coalition's concerns to misinformation and renderings that began circulating as if the plan was final, which wasn't the case.

What happens next?

INDOT will finish its environmental impact study and a preferred direction will begin to take shape in June. 

After that point, INDOT will host community meetings for public input and feedback. By September the preferred design choice will be selected and construction is likely to begin in 2020.

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