Penny Wise, Pound Foolish: Zillionth Example

Today I’m delivering a brief Treatise on Government (apologies to John Locke…)in the form of a case study.

Fifty years ago, when interstates were first constructed, two were built through an Indianapolis downtown that had been largely abandoned for the suburbs–a downtown dramatically different from today’s vibrant city center. The routing decisions made at that time divided neighborhoods, exacerbated public safety problems, and delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown.

Fifty years later, those interstates and their bridges are deteriorated and require repair. The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) has proposed to make those repairs, and in the process to further widen the interstate lanes and bridges and buttress them with enormous, dystopian concrete walls.

Thanks to the need for extensive and costly repairs, Indianapolis has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically improve a thoroughly dysfunctional system. A thoughtful revamping could improve traffic flow and restore community connectivity and walkability; it could also spur economic development that would significantly add to the city’s tax base. (Nothing to sneeze at, given our fiscal constraints.)

It is rare that a city gets an opportunity like this. Whatever decisions are made now will be in place for at least fifty to sixty years, so you would think that careful planning would be undertaken, to ensure that any project fixes current problems and is consistent with the city’s quality of life and transportation goals.

Thus far, however, both INDOT and the Mayor’s office have seemed disinterested in engaging in such a planning process, or considering anything other than a routine, “off the shelf” (and very expensive) repair and lane widening project that will simply lock the current problems into place.

In response to that disinterest, a group of planners, architects, landscape architects and residents who have made significant investments in the city center have come together to propose two potential alternatives to the currently proposed approach, and are urging INDOT to analyze and consider those alternatives.

Both alternatives would free up considerable acreage for commercial development that would add to the city’s tax base, while the plan currently being considered would substantially reduce the assessed value of a large number of properties, as well as the desirability of significant portions of downtown’s residential and historic neighborhoods. The alternatives would also mitigate noise and air pollution, which are a problem currently and which would be worsened by the addition of lanes.

When the current interstate routes were chosen, Indianapolis had no historic districts; today, those interstates disrupt five such districts. In our city, as elsewhere,  historic district designations have generated an enormous amount of investment. Property values have continued to rise due to the attractiveness, walkability and residential character of those districts.

We would be crazy not to protect these municipal assets.

Fifty years ago, mistakes were made. Indianapolis has a rare opportunity to correct those mistakes. It remains to be seen whether our city and state governments are willing to listen to the hundreds of residents and businesses that will be affected by the decisions being made–whether they will be responsive both to their citizens and to the data, and flexible enough to adjust a business-as-usual approach when the data indicates it will exacerbate those initial mistakes.

Why is this my “case study”?

I post a lot about national policies on this blog, and obviously, I think those policies are important. But decisions like those in my case study are where the rubber meets the road, as the saying goes. Everyday decisions, made by government agency employees and implemented by elected officials–Mayors and Governors–are enormously consequential for our day-to-day lives.

Providing disruptive and/or dysfunctional infrastructure, starving public schools of resources, failing to provide adequate public safety and other public services–all these things diminish our property values and degrade our quality of life. They’re important.

Hell, they’re critical.

Ultimately, that’s what governing is all about. It’s not glamorous.  It’s not about pomp and circumstance. It’s about the day-to-day grunt work necessary to provide a federal, state or local socio- political infrastructure that enhances the lives of citizens. I know Donald Trump doesn’t understand that, but most of the rest of us do.

Whether our state and local elected leadership recognizes the importance of these issues is an open question. When we know the answer, I’ll share it.


  1. Repairing our infrastructure, throughout this entire nation, has become a replacement for that old adage, “Everybody talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” Now; everyone including Trump is talking about repairing our infrastructure but no one is doing anything about it…other than raising taxes to pay for what is not getting done. So; where are those tax dollars going…such as the .20 per gallon increase on gas here in Indiana?

  2. Regardless of which plan is adopted for repairing/rebuilding Indiana’s highways one thing is certain. If financing and management is left to INDOT we will see another I-69 debacle.

  3. A perfect example is Providence, RI. They uncovered a river (well, a crick by midwestern standards), rerouted a highway, widened streets downtown so that net flow-through wasn’t decreased, created two parks on either side of the river, and sold off land to build four apartment/condo towers, offices, a train/bus terminal, and a high-end mall.

    Not only does all this generate taxes where before there were just parking lots, but 5-6 times a summer the city hosts Waterfire on the river, with exhibits, fireworks, a dance floor & bands – and best of all, lots & lots of retail (food, drink, clothing, art, souvenirs) for the 5000 to 10000 people who show up. It was a brilliant investment that turned downtown from a net cost center into a regional destination & major economic engine, all in under ten years.

    It’s possible, there just needs to leadership and LOTS of buy-in from the public – the fundraising was as micro-scaled as getting your name on a riverwalk brick for $50, and the PR was relentless, but it’s the only example of “urban renewal” I’ve seen that’s been successful, just because someone read Jane Jacobs. Visit if you can.

  4. Yeah, Ron, but Indianapolis has its annual Rib-Fest. Not sure what it generates but we have it.
    We also have and support with our taxes; Lucas Oil Stadium and the Colts which take 30% of the CIB budget annually…that means the Capital Improvement Board not Colts Individual Budget.

    “Providing disruptive and/or dysfunctional infrastructure, starving public schools of resources, failing to provide adequate public safety and other public services–all these things diminish our property values and degrade our quality of life. They’re important.”

    It is blatantly obvious the above mentioned issues are only important to the residents paying the taxes which are misused and abused by GOP and will continue unabated until the residents who keep electing them realize they are their own worst enemies as well as our’s. I will repeat myself by suggesting researching and rereading the series in the Indianapolis Star, “Abandon Indy” by Brian Eason a year or so ago. Nothing has changed except the further deterioration of neighborhoods and escalating collapse of infrastructure while crime, primarily murders, continue to rise. Three murders this Saturday night.

    “Fifty years ago, when interstates were first constructed, two were built through an Indianapolis downtown that had been largely abandoned for the suburbs–a downtown dramatically different from today’s vibrant city center. The routing decisions made at that time divided neighborhoods, exacerbated public safety problems, and delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown.”

    Does the above copied and pasted paragraph provide the beginning of the true “Abandon Indy”? Like the bills Congress is slipping through to remove rights and protections at the federal level while Trump’s idiocy keeps us distracted; these interstates were constructed through the outlying areas of Indianapolis which are now rife with crime. To mention one Trump distraction aside from infrastructure; according to Rachel Maddow on Friday night, the release of Trump’s first annual physical examination was reported by the White House, not directly by the White House physician. The White House apparently signed the physician’s name on the release, misspelling it. These are the people we look to to repair our crumbling roads, streets, highways and interstates nationally…and among those people sits Indiana’s own Mike Pence who did nothing to improve our local problems.

  5. Hate to beat the same drum, but this sentence jumped off the page at me, “We would be crazy not to protect these municipal assets.”

    It’s not “craziness”, it’s profit for a few above quality of life for citizens. This is what corrupt governments do all the time. Why are they corrupt and why do their decisions seem crazy?

    Self-centered greed!

    It’s really that simple.

    What you’re talking about is autonomous decisions from the top-down versus democratic decisions from the bottom up.

    This has become pervasive in our government today because of the money flowing in from the donor/oligarchy.

    There has been plenty written about INDOT’s corruption and revolving doors from top appointees to large corporate interests and back again. It’s the same revolving door in Washington.

    The billionaire and corporate class (donors) invest in political campaigns and they expect a payoff or a return on investment. The politicians they own then make policies which seemingly seem “crazy” to the people, but are perfectly logical to the donor class.

    I am sure someone in Indy could look at the contractors who do business with INDOT and determine EXACTLY why INDOT is proposing “expensive concrete walls”. LOL

    This isn’t magic…it’s called business. Forty years of Neoliberalism or the privatization of the public realm means we don’t have a democracy or representative republic. In other words, the only say considered is what the donor class wants (see the DNC operation during the 2016 election cycle).

    Our oligarchy works with the political class to circumvent bidding procedures…everything. They’ll set up shell corporations to run the project, ensuring sizable profits to all concerned, and then close down the company at the end.

    Do you think the Gannett owned media in Indy will call them out? Not if they receive dollars from the bidders because our “free press” follows the same business model (see Noam Chomsky’s, “Propaganda Model” for our media).

    Citizens have to learn that our government is no longer ours, especially in red states owned and controlled by the donor class. The billionaires like the Koch brothers don’t cross state lines from their homes and invest in our elections for nothing. They expect something in return. It’s called “pay to play”. If you ain’t paying, you ain’t playing. 😉

  6. I used to think I had cornered the market on dystopia, but Todd, you top me every day. Sadly, though, you’re right about most of that. Your cynicism, like mine, reflects our idealism being dashed on the rocks of unregulated capitalism and its natural, inherent greed.

    Right now, the “system” does not allow the kind of people we WISH would govern our society. As you say, if you ain’t paying’…..

  7. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression Indiana sold the interstate to some korporation that was supposed to pay for upkeep while collecting fees from drivers.

  8. many republican governors have lied about a few cents per gallon increase in gas and diesel to maintain a highway system,that is in constant use. the words,its a hardship on the average person.. bull,, the fact, the so called 3P public private partnetship will be the greatest hardship when implemented. As a long time trucker,ive used that toll road from chicago to new york,and philly. in 1989 it was about 49 bucks from youngstown to philly,today,148 bucks. now whos fooling who. denver built a beltway around town, siteing,the ease for truckers to stay out of the core area,make it easier,sure,16 bucks.. this is an attempt to privatize all roads,period. imagine the few cents over decades,into 6 bucks each way to work,everyday? its the plan,republicans intend to tap out each worker in america till we only work to keep them in the money. wake up.. now, heres one for the working class,in any,construction field, its called the Davis-Bacon repael act,(HR734),resubmitted (2012&2016)by steve king (r)ia. to repeal the prevailing wage to higway workers,and federal contractors on jobs. its a living wage,its keeps trained and seasoned construction workers coming back. i have a thing about untrained workers building a bridge im driving over,eh? though theres alot of pro con in this debate,it will be a major item in securing contracts by the private sector.they will be financed in part,by wall street,and trumps buddies who get the cuts. this repeal is just like busting unions,and making it harder to live. bring in new blood,and watch the labor force grow with new wage growth,not a bid to fatten some investors pockets. the goverment should be totally bearing this masive fix,not the workers wages,to fatten wall streets ego. who wants to be demaned to drive a toll road? and payoff is never on the road built. its a scam again formulated to privatize everything in America,so wall street can and will, tell every working class,we are your,new goverment. no democracy here bud,,, read the sign,shutup,keep working…. sounds like communist with a capitalistic twist.. change this now, or be a slave to wall streets greed. you,the economic slave.

  9. I have been blogging for infrastructure repair and renewal for years, especially after the Minnesota bridge collapse some years ago that killed several people and injured many more which,along with my reading of a report of the Civil Engineers on the bridges we have which are in danger of collapse, motivated me to demand that the federal government consider such to be an emergency. Nothing happened. I now find myself in the unenviable position of being opposed to infrastructure repair and renewal as proposed by Trump, who has suggested that the repair and renewal happen with Wall Street financing. I am opposed to paying tolls from the time one comes out of his/her driveway via a system where now even our public transportation system is to be privatized. We should finance our system with the establishment of a public bank system (as in Europe) in which bonds are sold to the general public to raise the necessary revenues and our transportation system remain public. Big Money has already captured our economy and is nearing capture of our educational system. Why add to the list?

  10. I remember the proud America full of hope and promise and progress. There was nothing that we couldn’t do. We led the world.

  11. If today we have in Indianapolis a “vibrant city center” it has come at a cost of billions of dollars in subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. We had Market Square arena, which was torn down and replaced by the Field House for the Pacers. We had the old Hoosier Dome for the Colts, which was torn down and replaced by a new stadium. The old downtown was replaced by Circle Center Mall, which has turned out to be a white elephant. If there is one thing both political parties agree with is lavishing the Pacers and Colts with corporate welfare is good. Indianapolis is a Potemkin village.

    “Potemkin village” has come to mean, especially in a political context, any hollow or false construct, physical or figurative, meant to hide an undesirable or potentially damaging situation.

    Travel out of the “vibrant city center” and you enter another world of potholed streets, broken sidewalks (or no sidewalks), abandoned malls, very few public parks (compared to other major cities). We have public transportation, but it is wretched.

  12. The problem is the low standards of the people. Low class populations have low class states with low class living environments. And yes, that correlates with the blueness vs. redness of the states, quite obviously. Dare I say “shitholes?”

  13. Monotonous; thank you, thank you, thank you. For some reason, lately I have been remembering downtown Indianapolis as it was, when it was a city filled with a variety of every department and specialty store you could ever need, including doctors, dentists, opticians, offices of all varieties and how many theaters for movies and live entertainment. There were also historic sites. There was public transportation from all areas in and out and around the city itself. Market Square Arena, The Hoosier Dome and the Convention Center were thriving. I miss my city, my home town downtown. One of my favorite bosses when working for the City of Indianapolis was from Michigan; he didn’t understand why I was still angry years after the English Hotel and Opera House were torn down from Monument Circle to put up that ugly, modern J.C. Penny store in their place. The construction of 465 routed residents and travelers around the city if they chose.

    Progress does not always mean improvement.

  14. So sad. Sheila writes about an interesting and important issue, but the commentators have to stir in their memories, their Trumpitis, and ignore the substance of the blog: What do we do from here on?

    I’d like to examine the proposals coming forward and then I’ll write what I think about them.
    In the meantime, I will try again to avoid reading the pathetic comments that spoil Shelia’s good efforts.

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