Lower income neighborhoods in Indianapolis are more likely to face the brunt of road issues, including a lack of sidewalks, drainage problems and degraded road conditions. However, these neighborhoods are often underrepresented in Indianapolis infrastructure projects.
Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Dan Parker said his office wants to make streets safer for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. In May, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced $25 million would be allocated to DPW for residential street reconstruction throughout Indianapolis as part of the city’s Circle City Forward initiative. Some Indianapolis roads haven’t been touched in nearly five decades.
However, Parker said the $25 million will only cover the cost of 10% of the residential streets that need repaired. To prioritize which roads to fix in each of the city’s 25 districts, DPW used the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) as well as median household income, known as equity index, for each district to determine what roads need the most reconstruction. This was the first time DPW used an equity index to allocate project funds.
“Not every district needed $1 million, so we didn’t think it was fair that each district got the same amount of money,” Parker said.
Based on PCI scores, District 2, which includes 86th Street and College Avenue, had the most need. However, after factoring in median income, the city’s 9th and 13th districts received a larger allocation of funds.
“The Circle City Forward project was the first time we looked at median household income,” Parker said. “I don’t know that councilors will want to do that with each [project] moving forward, but with this special money being released to us, we thought it should be done in an equitable fashion. A lot of times, wealthier neighborhoods are the ones to have been taken care of, so this tilted the needle back the other way so middle- and lower-income neighborhoods got their fair shake.”
The problem, historically
Much of the city’s road and sidewalk issues began with Unigov, the consolidation of the governments of the city of Indianapolis and Marion County in 1970. When the unification happened, Parker said the city never had enough money to maintain the roads it acquired.
Roads in Marion County are paid for by the state’s gas tax. The tax formula treats every street the same, regardless of how many lanes it has. Indianapolis now has 8,400 lane miles of streets, but only gets money for 3,300 of them.
“People are frustrated. They say, ‘I pay my taxes, how come my street hasn’t been done?’” Parker said. “… Your income taxes and property taxes don’t go into fund road budgets. That’s driven primarily by gas taxes you pay at the pump that go to the state and then come back to us, and excise taxes and wheel taxes.”
Further, because this formula only accounts for county population, it doesn’t account for the roughly 200,000 people who drive into Marion County every day for work.
How the gas tax works
The state’s gas tax formula treats every street in the state the same and does not account for traffic volume, only for the population of the county the road is in. Based on vehicle miles traveled, for example, a one-way road in Ohio County — which has a population of 5,875 — would earn the county $20 per vehicle mile traveled. Meanwhile, roads in Indianapolis average around $3 per vehicle mile traveled, due largely to the number of lanes on each road.
“For most counties, this [formula] isn’t a big deal,” Parker said. “But for the largest county with nearly 1 million people living in it and another 200,000 that come in every day in their car, we have to build a transportation network to handle all of that, and we don’t get any money for it.”
Before the city and county merger, every Indianapolis street had a sidewalk, while the county didn’t have that standard. A sidewalk moratorium during Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s administration in the 1990s stopped construction of new sidewalks, which also negatively impacted pedestrians. The moratorium is no longer in effect; however, if DPW were now to add sidewalks to every street that needed one, it would cost around $7.2 billion.
‘We believe in Vision Zero’
From 2019 to 2020, the number of fatal collisions in Marion County rose 31%, compared to an 8% increase nationwide. So far in 2021, there have been 189 collisions involving pedestrians — eight in October alone — that have resulted in 19 deaths. There have been 58 reported collisions involving cyclists, according to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
Jordan Updike and his wife, Carly, were hit head-on as they drove on Ohio Street on Sept. 22. Updike said the other driver sped through a red light before colliding with his car. Updike, who typically either walks or bikes to get around town, said Indianapolis roads aren’t safe for drivers or pedestrians.
“I read somewhere that when you design streets like gun barrels, people are going to drive like bullets,” Updike said. “Indianapolis is a very car-centric city, so we paint little areas for bikes to ride in, but it isn’t safe infrastructure. It’s one of many of America’s societal ills, because cycling infrastructure is something that’s been solved in many other countries.”
DPW plans to put several roads “on a diet”: reducing the number of streets and narrowing lanes to force drivers to slow down. However, Parker emphasized the need to focus on pedestrian safety.
DPW is working with construction firms to improve several intersections. DPW chose the intersections — including one on Post Road and 42nd Street — based on crash data.
“There are some tragic situations where crashes weren’t the driver’s fault, something just happens,” Parker said. “But the majority of fatalities have really been about drivers not following laws, and there are tragic consequences to that. … We want to reduce pedestrian crashes to zero. We believe in Vision Zero, and we’re going to get there. The more you transition your city to a walkable city, the more you have to invest in pedestrian safety.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.