The ReThink Project

I used to defend Indiana’s slow progress by pointing out that allowing other states to innovate and then seeing what worked and what didn’t was prudent. What happened in State X after it did thus-and-so, and what can we learn about the best way to handle thus-and-so?

Unfortunately, that justification too often mistakes stubborn resistance to change for prudence.

That bureaucratic refusal to consider past error was especially annoying in the initial effort to get the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to rethink its automatic approach to repairing the Interstate highways that divide the city’s downtown.

As I have previously written, it was inarguable that at the 50-year mark (which we hit a few years back),those interstates required  extensive repairs. A group of downtown residents, businesses, architects and landscape architects formed a group they called “ReThink I69/70” and urged INDOT to “rethink” the design of those highways and to mitigate, where possible, the problems they’d created when they were first rammed through the city’s Black and historic neighborhoods.

The racism reflected in the siting of the nation’s Interstate system has been widely documented, and the Biden Administration is confronting the damage.

The interstate system — largely built between the 1950s and 1970s — helped move Americans in large numbers and at high speeds, but its creation required a lot of destruction. reports that “more than 475,000 households and more than a million people were displaced nationwide” due to federal highway construction. “Hulking highways cut through neighborhoods, darkened and disrupted the pedestrian landscape, worsened air quality, and torpedoed property values.”

That damage was largely inflicted in Black and Latino neighborhoods. That wasn’t an accident. At Yale Law Journal, Sarah Schindler writes that the “placement of highways so as to intentionally displace poor black neighborhoods” was commonplace in places like New York, Miami, Omaha, Oakland, and many other American cities. “Although this work was undertaken in order to make places more accessible to cars,” she adds, “it was also done with an eye towards eliminating alleged slums and blight in city centers.”

Knocking down poor neighborhoods to make room for commuter highways was inherently racist, the Los Angeles Times adds: “Highway builders often defended taking property in Black neighborhoods by arguing the land was cheapest there — a fact that relied on government-backed mortgage redlining policies that discouraged investment in Black areas.” Sometimes the harmful intent was more overt, Reuters reports. In Montgomery, Alabama, the state routed Interstate 85 “through a neighborhood where many Black civil rights leaders lived, rather than choosing an alternate route on vacant land.”

The need to address structural problems in our aging roadways gave Indianapolis a rare opportunity to address the problems created by those initial decisions. The ReThink group argued that  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 such an opportunity.

The initial response of INDOT was to ignore and dismiss the alternatives promoted by the ReThink coalition. It took considerable time and effort to get the agency just to back off its initial plans to add lanes to the current configurations,  consuming more real estate and increasing the divisions between neighborhoods. By the time the coalition had generated enough attention and support for redesign, the northeast section of Indiana’s Inner Loop was already being reconstructed–in place, but thankfully, without the additional lanes and concrete walls.

The remaining work, however, may benefit from the persistence of the ReThink coalition and  the Biden Administration’s emphasis on the need to address the mistakes (and animus) of the past

Today Mayor Joe Hogsett, Congressman André Carson, Rethink Coalition, and the Indy Chamber announced a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The award will fund a planning study around the southeast leg of the I-65/I-70 Downtown Inner Loop near the Fletcher Place and Fountain Square neighborhoods, examining how to create more livable, reconnected communities around the interstate while maintaining interstate commerce and regional travel.

“This federally funded study will help guide our community as it looks at ways we can reunite neighborhoods divided by the original interstate program,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett. “Thanks to USDOT, INDOT, and our community partners, this announcement begins a process that could have lasting benefit for generations of Indianapolis residents.”

There’s a broader lesson here. Citizens who are sufficiently aroused can move lawmakers and bureaucrats.

Chinese citizens forced changes to their government’s  COVID rules. Iranians are protesting their government’s “morality police.” Israeli citizens are opposing Netanyahu.

Margaret Mead said it best : Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.


  1. INDOT is loaded with highway engineers. They are like the guy that the only tool he owns is a hammer. Every solution looks like a nail. For INDOT, every solution looks like more, and bigger and “better” roads. The downtown inner loop really should have been approached as an economic development problem and it was frustrating the way INDOT structured this whole project. The knew they had to rebuild the whole inner loop. They set up a 10 year plan to do it, allocating billions of dollars, BUT nobody in state government ever presented this as a billion+ dollar project. They broke it up into multiple chunks and said we have $250 million to spend in year one and the money is already allocated, and here is what they are planning on shoving down our throats. The reality is that is the Rethink coalition plan were considered, it might have raised the cost of the rebuild by maybe 25%, but it would have reaped maybe 10 times the cost in new economic development in downtown Indy. We are talking an extra $10,000,000,000 being added the tax base.

    As for the racist aspect of the highway construction, I am sure in the 1960’s they didn’t see that they were killing neighborhoods, but because of systemic racist policies dating to the Federal Home Mortgage program starting in the 1930’s, where neighborhoods with large non-white populations were literally “red-lined”, they were just clearing out the slums. When I moved to the Old Northside (part of once red-lined area) in 1989, my next door neighbor owned three houses in a row. The first big victorian this white doctor bought, he couldn’t even get a bank loan and used his AMEX card and paid $4500 for the house (it last sold for $900K+). My house was not as nice and a year later he bought my house for $3500 (I just sold it for $800K+). My whole point is that INDOT could buy all of the properties in these now low income neighborhoods for dirt cheap, because of SYSTEMIC racist policies.

    I’m sad that the Northsplit Interstate rebuild happened 4 years ago and not today, because I think there is a good chance that the Rethink version of the project would now be moving forward.

  2. My neighborhood was devastated by the interstate. We were centered around the local Catholic Church, St. Catherine of Siena. The interstate sliced the east of the parish off and many long time residents had to move. The church was torn down years ago and we all know that going to the CVS is no replacement for going to Sunday Mass. We could see the same thing happening in the black neighborhoods as well. Urban planning was in its infancy at that time and the thought of eliminating “blighted neighborhoods” was generally praised as progressive. The key word in all of this is “neighborhood.” Even blighted neighborhoods have relationships within that make them neighborhoods. I’m just glad that we seem to have learned a lesson from this history.

  3. The government needs to totally ReThink INDOT and their antiquated methods and practices. When you sit down and have a conversation with an INDOT project manager about a proposed new terrain highway being pushed down the throats of thousands of people who are opposed to it and his answer is – you know Indiana is the Crossroads of America and we need to add new highways and roads. That seems to be the mentality of the entire leadership at INDOT. In Southern Indiana we are fighting against a very destructive proposed 54-mile new terrain highway that will negatively impact the environment, farmland, forests and displace several homes. That doesn’t even address the climate impact. But INDOT seems to be siding with the wealthy business owners and their political allies and refuse to do the right thing by improving existing roads that will accomplish the same results.

  4. The prescience and persistence of the small group of dedicated leaders who reacted to the problem, seized this opportunity and confronted these challenges and sought to right prior injustices through the formation of ReThink 65/70 is and continues to be inspiring as a model of grassroots civic action. Almost single-handedly, they have slowed, and in some respects stopped, the government bureaucracy mid-stride in an effort to “rethink” the ways in which highways are constructed. To these good citizens our entire city and state owe a huge debt of thanks!

  5. INDOT is a corrupt vestibule where all go to drink the poison and then share it amongst themselves. IDEM is no different in Indianapolis.

    Only the establishment can make changes if it wants. I’m also watching the Indiana Press refurbishment to see what happens as the oligarchs (non-public) take it on…what happened to IN Public Radio and National Public Radio? One must see what’s going on before the PR campaign kicks in…

    Has Sheila offered her services?

    She might not be considered too liberal for them.

  6. We are no longer in Kansas,we are part of a global economy. To oppose INDOT is nothing more than clinging to old-world means of doing business. We must continue to strive for modernity. If neighborhoods are in the way of expanding modernity ,those neighborhoods must acquiesce. The few must sacrifice for the many.

  7. In Southwest Indiana, a new terrain highway called the Mid-States Corridor has been forced on the inhabitants of Martin, Dubois, and Spencer counties that would parallel US 231 from Crane to Japser to Rockport. The road was created in legislation by Jasper buisnessmen Mike Braun (Senator and now candidate for governor) along with State Senator Mark Messmer, both residents of Jasper; and most likely for the benefit of their businesses. This road will destroy farms and homes, and have a serious impact on the Amish Community that would not be able to travel freely through the county where they live and do business. It is very difficult for a horse drawn buggy to cross an interstat highway. This disasterous road will also create the same problem that most major cities like Indianapolis has where areas of the city are cut off from regular transportation routes that create areas of blight. And worst of all this road will go right through or right up against the Hoosier National Forest, creating increased air polltion, destruction of the natural terrain and interupting wildlife migration.

    Several individuals and and environmental groups formed an oppositon group called the Coalition to Stop the Mid-States Corridor. The group has written letters, made calls, met with legislators and even talked to the Lt. Governor, and more importantly taken part in the process that is part of INDOTs determination of how and when a road will proceed. The group, which I am a part of has always insisted that a road on the existing footprint of 231 would meet the needs of business , the residents and the environment. But our efforts have fallen on deaf ears. We have always promoted the same philosipfy of the ReThink group; asking the groups that are pushing this road through to stop and think about the impact this will have on people, buisesses and the Hoosier National Forest.

    There so much of the Mid-State Corridor that is wrong in how the project was created (Messmer and Braun), and how the State (INDOT) ignores the thousands of residents in the three counties that will suffer from this road if it is built.

    ReThink sounds great, I only hope the State will stop to re-think this road.

    If you want to find out more about the Mid-States Corridor here is the linke to our group:

  8. Ian. Do you apply your principle that the few must sacrifice for the many to tax policy? Specifically, do you support Biden’s plan to raise taxes on the most wealthy individuals ?

  9. Sharon,your query is moot. Biden never follows through with anything he says,perhaps he is simply forgetful?

    I’m sure Jill has taken him aside and admonished him for wanting to raise taxes upon –not only themselves– but their closest friends and biggest donors.

  10. Ian. My query has to do with your stance regarding sacrificing the few to the many and whether you regard it as a principle or simply an expediency to be employed as it suits your interests. I’m still interested in your answer to that question.

  11. It is the nature of eminent domain that the few have to sacrifice for what is best for the many. It is also a requirement that the few be compensated for the fair market value of their property taken.

    I think it’s a legitimate debate as to where those highways should be placed when it comes to traversing through cities. Indeed, the interstate highway system has killed neighborhoods in the inner city and many of those neighborhoods were majority African-American. That’s demonstrably true.

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy though for those who think reducing traffic lanes is a way of improving the quality of life in the city. All that does is lead to more traffic jams, more idling cars, more air pollution.

    The I-69 extension was one of the best things that happened to this state transportation wise. SW Indiana really needed that highway.

  12. By the way, while Ian might have a point about the few sacrificing for what is best for the majority, I don’t endorse his veiled dementia dig at Joe Biden. Biden is a 1000 times mentally sharper than that reality show host and ignoramus who is, thankfully, now ex-President.

  13. Paul, Atlanta now has roads with 16 lanes. These big high capacity roads produce what’s called induced congestion. As the capacity of the road increases, more drivers are attracted to the route and soon despite any expansion, the road becomes MORE congested that it was before the upgrade.

    A traditional city street grid allows traffic to spread out with drivers utilizing all of the available routes. Interstates chop up this street grid forcing traffic down to choke points that happen to intersect with the induced congestion of the Interstates.

  14. The Republicans were pushing for integration since the Civil war. The big expansion if the New Deal and huge dollars the Democrat Party usef did most of the desegregating. Its nice to see a oarty who is historically against the black community to try undue what it did in the past

    Joe Biden was a huge segregationist who had friends in the KKK

  15. We could always get together and elect more people that think the way we do. It is not an impossible dream. Also, it’s funny how the comments turned to blaming Biden somehow for what our own State Government has decided is best for all of us. This is a State problem.

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