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Beyond Bridges - Decade of Infrastructure

“Decade of Infrastructure” provides Hoosiers new opportunities to have a voice in public projects

November 17, 2023 | Indianapolis, Ind.
By Scott Palmer, Indiana Public Broadcasting

Paula Brooks is a third generation resident of the Indianapolis neighborhood formerly known as the Near West Side.

A century ago, the area along Indiana Avenue was the city’s center of Black culture, commerce, and a closely connected community building generational wealth through home ownership.

As she strolls those sidewalks today, Brooks describes a community very different from the one she remembers as a child. “The challenges that we face include attracting residents who want to stay,” she says. “The reason,” she adds, “is that we don't have amenities, and our infrastructure is hostile.”

She cites the very sidewalk she’s standing on as an example. “You're really putting your life in God's hands when you try to get across the street here,” says Brooks, pointing to the lone stop sign where her residential street dead-ends at a noisy six-lane thoroughfare.

“This used to be a connected neighborhood, and today it is not,” she adds.

Brooks acknowledges that many factors have contributed to the decades of disinvestment fracturing the neighborhood, but few were as severe as the construction of Interstate 65’s “inner loop,” completed in 1972.

“I kind of think of [the interstate] like the Berlin wall,” says Kathi Ridley-Merriweather, also a longtime resident of the neighborhood known today as Ransom Place. “It went up overnight. It cut through the middle of the city. It cut families in half.”

“And then,” she adds, “the house that was for sale across the street is not going to sell.”

The inner loop’s construction displaced 17,000 people and 8,000 homes and businesses, disproportionately impacting communities of color.

“A lot of the infrastructure that Americans live with today was built in ways that did not show any regard for the concerns of the communities that were impacted,” acknowledges U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. “It was typical for lower income communities and communities of color to lack the political or economic power to shape these projects.“

With the benefit of hindsight, are Americans poised today to do infrastructure differently?

A New ‘Decade of Infrastructure’

“We're way beyond the design life of a lot of the infrastructure in the U.S.,” says Purdue Professor of Civil Engineering John Haddock. “A lot of it needs to either have major, major upgrades done to it, or [be] completely reconstructed.”

“And because of that,” Haddock adds, “I think that's why you see infrastructure being a big deal now.”

A ‘big deal’ is certainly one way to describe the $1.2 trillion investment in U.S. infrastructure that Congress authorized in late 2021. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – promises a nationwide kickstart of what the Biden administration has optimistically dubbed the “decade of infrastructure.”

The majority of the Act’s multi-year funding is administered through the programs of federal agencies, such as Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation. If future administrations stand firm against the ebb and flow of Washington’s political tides – a big “if” – Indiana can expect to receive federal funding for a variety of infrastructure investments, including:

  • $7 billion to repair more than 1,100 bridges, and nearly 5,500 miles of highway in poor condition
  • $868 million to boost statewide coverage of high-speed internet
  • $751 million to improve drinking water
  • $680 million for public transportation, with an additional $170 million for airports, and
  • $100 million to grow a statewide EV charging network.

Not to be forgotten are notable state-funded infrastructure investments, such as the $180 million committed to Indiana trails, part of the $1 billion Next Level Connections program announced by Governor Holcomb in 2018, and nearing completion in 2024.

Collectively, the investments promise to deliver a refresh of U.S. infrastructure that rivals the New Deal of the 1930s, or the 1956 launch of the U.S. interstate highway system.

Unlike the investments of yesteryear, though, today’s infrastructure consists of technologies and systems unheard of a century ago – providing Hoosiers an opportunity to ask what tomorrow’s infrastructure might include.

What is “infrastructure?”

“That’s a great question,” says Haddock, “because it’s so encompassing.”

“The definition that most Hoosiers have of infrastructure, in their minds, is vastly different than it would have been even 25 years ago,” says Deana Haworth, CEO of Hirons, an Indianapolis-based public relations firm that specializes in public outreach and community engagement for government agencies across the Midwest.

Roads and bridges? Definitely infrastructure. Sidewalks? Trails? Most Hoosiers say yes. Beyond that, your mileage may vary.

“We also think about utilities in this space,” Haworth says. “Energy, gas, and now we even think about broadband as part of infrastructure.”

“A lot of our infrastructure is underground. We never see it,” adds Haddock, referring to such systems as storm sewers, sanitary sewers, and drinking water.

“Some things have been considered infrastructure since the days of the Romans,” says Buttigieg. “Other things are newer on the scene. But what it all adds up to is the bones of the built environment of a society that lets us go about our lives.”

Buttigieg adds, “These infrastructure improvements are going to make everyday life better. And sometimes by design, in a way you don't actually have to think about every day.”

But those who do think about infrastructure may ask: what benefits justify the high price tags?

Overall Quality of Life

“There's always going to be legitimate concern that we're getting good value for our money,” says Buttigieg. “We're talking about large sums of taxpayer funding. People rightly expect that it's spent in a rigorous way.”

“I think we need to get better at explaining the value of infrastructure,” acknowledges Vicki Duncan Gardner, Senior Director of Strategic Communications at Hirons.

One need look no further than the very title of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to see the most commonly-cited justification for infrastructure projects: jobs.

“Policymakers would tell you that they're trying to upgrade infrastructure because it creates jobs, it grows the economy,” says Haddock, who is quick to acknowledge he’s a “pavements guy” and not a policymaker.

But Haddock and policymakers alike, including Buttigieg, know the foundations beneath most infrastructure projects are deeper. Justifications range from public safety, to economic development, to spurring private investment, and more.

For example, the original buildout of the U.S. interstate highway system has proven successful on at least those three fronts: it increased public safety by reducing traffic deaths, boosted the economy by moving goods between states, and paved the way for private development along the highway corridors.

Ultimately, Gardner says, smart infrastructure investments will improve quality of life. “And really, that's what every community leader should be looking at when they are serving the public. How can I make lives better? And oftentimes making those significant investments – intelligently – is what you need to do.”

Doing Infrastructure Differently

Investing intelligently includes avoiding past mistakes, experts acknowledge. Slowly but surely, those who create our infrastructure are taking note of the past, and creating more room at the design table.

“What we've seen is that there's a lot more of an emphasis on engaging the communities, participating in the evolution of these places,” says Jonathan Geels, President of Troyer Group.

As the principal landscape architect for a civil engineering firm that often designs parks and other public places, Geels is a strong advocate for public engagement. He says the industry is trending toward “much more of a ‘design with’ than a ‘design for’ methodology.”

And Interstate 65 is, once again, an example.

Rethinking I-65

The I-65 inner loop around downtown Indianapolis, now more than fifty years old, is due for an overhaul. Brenda Freije, CEO of the local nonprofit Rethink Coalition, is leading the charge to make sure – this time – community voices are included to help shape the reconstruction projects’ design and impacts.

“A big part of our effort is to make sure that it's meaningful engagement,” says Freije, “that it's not just, ‘oh, we had a meeting and we heard you, and we told you what we're going to do and you got a little bit of a say.’ That's not real engagement,” she says.

Formerly named Rethink 65/70, the organization Freije leads began as a grassroots effort to improve the design plans for a portion of I-65 known as the North Split interchange – the first phase of a planned reconstruction of the inner loop.

“When the community saw those plans, they thought that it could be rebuilt differently. And so [Rethink 65/70] became, really, a protest in many ways to those original construction plans,” Freije says.

Though the group was successful in advocating for some changes, they were unable to fully realize their original vision. “We were really too late to have a voice in the process because the plans were almost done,” says Freije.

“What we learned is that you have to start really early when it comes to construction projects like this. These are mega projects, and they take years and years of planning,” she notes.

The group is just in time, though, for community voices to be heard during the next phase of construction, to help reconnect the neighborhoods originally fractured by the interstate’s construction decades ago.

In February, Rethink Coalition was awarded a $2 million Reconnecting Communities grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund a planning study. The inquiry would examine how to improve livability near the interstate, hopefully by “capping” the recessed highway. “It'll just put land over the top, so that the highway basically disappears,” Freije describes. “It's easy to go from one side of the highway to the other. And that will just be transformational.”

Hoosier Voices Matter

Though experts acknowledge the opportunities for public involvement may vary from project to project, there is one takeaway from these trends that Haworth hopes will stick with Hoosiers. “Their voice matters,” she says.

And she should know – her firm has led infrastructure engagement projects for two decades. “Our role in these infrastructure projects is really to translate between the planners, the engineers, the construction firms and the public,” Haworth explains. “We will sit down with the elected officials, the city planners and all of the consultants gathered around the table and really say, ‘ do we make sure that all voices are heard that this project will impact?’”

But there’s a challenge for Hooisers who want to be heard: knowing who to speak up to. “It’s hard for you and I as private citizens to have much effect on the federal government – it's a behemoth,” notes Haddock. “But we can have a lot of effect on our local government.”

And it’s generally state and local government agencies that drive public involvement opportunities.

“We don't sit around choosing the highway designs here at DOT,” says Buttigieg. “We look to the state and local project sponsors to do that. But where we come in,” he adds, “is we make sure that they follow a process to hear those voices that deserve to be heard, and to consider alternatives.”

That process, Haworth says, requires everyday Hoosiers to do their part. “We will do our best to reach out to you and make sure that you're aware,” she says, “but also, keep your listening ears on. Think about what might be happening in your community and make sure that you're engaged. Because these investments can lift the community beyond our wildest dreams if everybody comes together on them.”


This is the first of a new series of documentary shorts on Indiana infrastructure. A production of Indiana Public Broadcasting, Beyond Bridges will do more than profile Indiana infrastructure projects. Our goal is to educate Hoosiers on topics related to infrastructure in a way that makes all of us more active and informed participants in these public functions.

To share story ideas or learn about underwriting opportunities, contact Paul Wasowski, Executive Producer at