When the Bloomington City Council met in June 2008 to hear from citizens and Bloomington Hospital officials about the hospital's proposed move, Jim Allison suggested that moving the hospital from our center city to the county suburbs deserved to be in the Museum of Stupid Ideas. There it would join ideas that the citizens of Bloomington had thankfully not embraced, such as tearing down the Courthouse or moving the library to the suburbs. Well, I want to nominate the Indiana Department of Transportation's (INDOT) State Road 45/46 Bypass widening for inclusion in this pantheon of foolishness.
As for the museum, I want to curate this particular exhibit. At the center I shall have a squawking Chicken Little, predicting not only that the sky is falling, but also that, as Christy Gillenwater of the Bloomington Area Chamber of Commerce put it, "The Bypass expansion project is critical to the future of the community." Hearken, her right-hand man has warned without the widening, Bloomington commerce will suffer.
Let's throw in a few other dire predictions for good measure. IU's North Campus will be a disastrous failure without this proposed widening. Plus, in the words of Ron Walker, of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. (BEDC), "Failure to move forward on the Bypass expansion could be a monumental setback for our community's economic development efforts."
Now let's just step into my Way-back Machine and travel down Memory Lane (which incidentally can accommodate all sorts of vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and transit safely). The Bypass widening was proposed more than 30 years ago. Apparently it got delayed and was put on the back burner at INDOT until it was resurrected in the early '90's. A meeting was held to display the preliminary designs and to get feedback from the public.
When I read Steven Higgs's report from 1992 from the Herald-Times on that meeting, I hear the same vocal neighborhood opponents on one side of the Bypass and the same Growth Machine voices on the other. But there are some significant differences in what the neighbors and other opponents are saying today. On the Growth Machine side, although I suspect they have upgraded from ear plugs to ear buds, the blinders are still firmly in place, and they are singing the same old song.
While I retired here only 15 years ago, I am under the distinct impression that Bloomington has not been stagnant since this Bypass project was first delayed nearly three decades ago, despite the same doomsayers. I would imagine that if it were delayed another 30 years, this city and its economy would persist and even thrive.
"Would someone explain to me why the BEDC and the Chamber would want to Bypass Bloomington?"
Moreover, while I don't actually have a crystal ball, I might predict an even rosier outlook without the widening, because what draws folks to relocate, according to a 2009 National Talent Market report, is environment and affordability. Does the Growth Machine really equate environment with highways? The individuals responding to the survey were talking Green Space -- the stuff INDOT wants to remove and replace with more pavement.
Would someone explain to me why the BEDC and the Chamber would want to Bypass Bloomington? If to bypass is to detour, as in let's avoid Downtown Bloomington and get to the generic mall area, where I feel so good because it looks like every other town in America, then I don't understand how this would be good for the Chamber's downtown merchants.
Call me conservative, but I am with the mayor and council members who want to preserve what is unique about downtown, because that is what attracts consumers to park their cars, walk around town, sit down to a great meal, shop in our stores and galleries. This is the same Chamber, which is known to obstruct one progressive ordinance after another because it will hurt downtown, and now they can't wait to widen the Bypass? Is anyone else experiencing a touch of cognitive dissonance?
In the intervening 30 years there have been significant changes in thinking about road construction and how to mitigate traffic congestion. Apparently INDOT's highway engineers skipped those continuing education seminars, because their design is the product of a time warp. Maybe it happened when Indiana decided to embrace Daylight Savings Time, but that is pure speculation on my part.
"Four members of the MPO Policy Committee -- Jack Baker, Andy Ruff, Mark Stoops and Julie Thomas -- were stalwart at the end of June in supporting a delay of the SR 45/46 Bypass project."
Let's take a peek at Palm Beach, Fla., where US 1 has been narrowed from a four-lane, desolate highway through the community to a two-lane road, with bump outs at intersections to allow pedestrians to cross more safely. This transformation has resulted in residential and commercial development, and the area is flourishing. While travel speed has decreased, travel time is roughly the same. Not surprisingly, there are fewer accidents on this stretch of road.
This is an example of the influence of the new urbanist movement, and this approach to transportation corridors is known as Context-Sensitive Design, or Complete Streets, which incidentally is a policy adopted in January 2009 by our own Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for all new MPO projects. However, the Bypass is INDOT's project, and agency officials can do whatever they please. They seem to forget that we taxpayers are picking up the tab for their short-sightedness. But then money and what the people want has never been much of a concern at INDOT, as we have seen with I-69, but that is another story altogether.
In his official blog on July 14, 2009, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls for "providing communities with additional transportation choices, such as light rail, fuel-efficient buses and paths for pedestrians and bicycles that intersect with transit centers. These options will also reduce household transportation costs, strengthen local economies, lower traffic congestion, and reduce reliance on foreign oil."
Wow, now here is an ally in approaching transportation wholistically. Unfortunately the man at the top can't force the more backward DOTs to think more progressively. Gratefully, we also have a few more allies even closer to hand.
Four members of the MPO Policy Committee -- Jack Baker, Andy Ruff, Mark Stoops and Julie Thomas -- were stalwart at the end of June in supporting a delay of the SR 45/46 Bypass project, in order to examine the amenities (or lack thereof) provided in the INDOT design.
"Mayor Mark Kruzan seemed equivocal in June. Then, out of nowhere, he disseminated a strongly-worded rebuke of the BEDC and the Chamber and their let's-just-get-on-with-it-and-to-hell-with-the-little-people lobbying of INDOT."
Mayor Mark Kruzan seemed equivocal in June. Then, out of nowhere, he disseminated a strongly-worded rebuke of the BEDC and the Chamber and their let's-just-get-on-with-it-and-to-hell-with-the-little-people lobbying of INDOT. It was as if Kruzan emerged from the phone booth with a big "L", for Leader, emblazoned on his chest. And he slapped them around with his well-chosen words.
He suggested that they had "fallen into the antiquated thinking that more pavement equals progress." He pointed out that a "1970's roadway design isn't appropriate for a 21st Century project." He speculated: "There are better and certainly safer ways to make the road work for everyone." He reminded them: "Quality of life, including promoting non-vehicular transportation and mass transit, is key to attracting and retaining employees who will power research and technology sector employment in Bloomington. ... Those new workers should be able to get to and from campus and Downtown without relying upon their vehicles to do so safely. More pavement alone isn't the route to prosperity."
He also offered: "There has been and is no reason that the Bypass plans cannot include accommodations to keep it from dividing the community along its path."
Amen. (View the full text of his letter.)
The widening isn't critical, despite what the Chamber says. This is critical: on so many levels we don't want and can't afford to let the Bypass divide us in fundamental ways.
"It was as if Kruzan emerged from the phone booth with a big "L", for Leader, emblazoned on his chest."
Physically, we don't want a barrier to our coming together as neighbors. We don't want a barrier to accessibility. Pragmatically, advocates on both sides need to understand that we all ultimately want a prosperous, dynamic and immensely livable city. How that looks in our minds and how we determinedly believe it has to manifest is what divides us.
What might work is collaboration between the parties, an inclusion of all the voices and concerns. We need to remember that roads are not the sole domain of the automobile. Drivers are implored to yield the right of way, and I would invite them to start here and now, since the quality of the environment for walking, biking and transit is a suitable measure of the livability, sustainability and desirability of Bloomington for the present and for generations to come. Like the mayor, I am convinced that this will be an infinitely better roadway, if the needs of all of the citizens are truly valued.
In the spirit of collaboration, citizens are coming together from across Bloomington in a coalition of neighborhoods to support those neighbors who will experience the widening most keenly and to counter the opinion expressed by (recently fired) Ellettsville planner Frank Nierzwicki, an MPO policy committee proxy and former INDOT employee: "In my opinion the Bypass is one of the most-backed projects in the City of Bloomington." I don't know which drivers he was talking to, but it certainly wasn't a neighbor trying to cross the road.
There is a vocal opposition to building an outdated project simply because 30 years ago we believed that bigger was better. There is a vocal opposition to creating a speedway in the midst of our community. There is a vocal opposition to the creation of greater impediments to pedestrians and bicyclists.
We have a golden opportunity to utilize the principles expressed in our Growth Policies Plan, to approach this issue with intelligence and to come up with a context-sensitive solution, which might be a template for other INDOT projects.
Sarah Ryterband is a member of the MPO Citizens Advisory Council and can be reached at email@example.com.