Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard recently made headlines by declaring his plans to transform the often-congested intersection at 96th Street and Keystone Avenue into an elevated roundabout interchange that could eliminate long waits.
It was part of a long list of infrastructure improvements that the mayor announced he wants complete in the near future. But several of his critics are asking how he plans to pay for these projects and why this is being brought up now months before an election.
City councilor Eric Seidensticker is among those who are skeptical.
“He’s been working on it for many years and hasn’t figured out a way to pay for it,” he said.
A quick search shows that the plans for 96th and Keystone go back many years. In 2011, city engineers unveiled a $38-million plan to turn the intersection into an elevated roundabout. A public hearing was held at city hall and media outlets quoted several concerned business owners at the time, all saying that they thought the construction would kill their businesses.
Larry Giggers, then manager of Ruth’s Chris Steak House at 96th Street, said at the time that he feared construction would kill his business which was already on the decline. Ruth’s Chris did eventually move to the new IronWorks building at 86th Street, but sources say the move had nothing to do with the traffic at 96th and Keystone.
Car dealerships – a major staple of that area – were also concerned about congestion caused by construction.
Rob Butler, of Butler Auto Group, told Current in Carmel in 2011 that he thought the plan was positive for residents but very harmful to business owners.
“I don’t know if two minutes at a light is going to be worth 200 jobs and four businesses,” he said at the time. “But knowing (Mayor Jim Brainard), it will be more than four businesses.”
In 2011, it was estimated that the project could cost just over $50 million, including construction costs, utility relocation and right-of-way acquisitions.
The plan was put on the backburner due to a lack of state and federal funding.
In the meantime, Brainard worked on the annexation of Southwest Clay, which involved spending $40 million to improve roads while taxes from the area were slowly phased in. Money was also spent to improve infrastructure related to Carmel’s downtown urban core with increased density surrounding areas such as the Carmel City Center.
“The recession has held up a lot of things,” he said. “But it’s now time to get back to these projects.”
While he’s proud of the city’s growth, Brainard said Carmel can’t “rest on its laurels” and it is time to get back to improving the city’s east side, which includes Keystone.
Brainard said it’s important to keep improving Keystone because it will have a positive impact on local businesses. He said that a Shell gas station at the 96th Street intersection closed due to ongoing congestion so he thinks a roundabout interchange – similar to the one at 116th and Keystone – will resolve that problem.
City Council President Rick Sharp, who is running against Brainard in the upcoming election for mayor, said he doesn’t think there’s money available to make sure promises.
“The mayor’s comments really are just campaigning,” he said. “Because the truth of the matter is that there isn’t any credit available for these projects and we haven’t heard any concrete plans on how he plans to pay for these projects. He says that there’s ‘capacity’ but I’m not sure how he plans to pay for this.”
Brainard said that others are being unnecessarily pessimistic about improving Carmel and that he doesn’t want to rest on his laurels. He said the city’s excellent bond rating is proof that these projects can be accomplished.
Brainard said he’s considering many different ways to pay for the projects and will look at all funding opportunities, whether it is state or federal funds, the city’s annual streets budget or through borrowing money through a bond.
“We are looking at our budget,” he said. “What we need to do is to break it out into parts and tackling them one at a time. We are recalculating our previous estimates and looking every possible way to do this.”
Brainard said it’s important to attempt to fix this situation and not just dismiss the entire idea because some of his critics think there’s no money.
Sharp said it’s also important to consider how construction can affect local businesses. He said that’s not a reason to not proceed with a project but that there needs to be a plan. He said the “31 Bites” promotion to help struggling businesses during the U.S. 31 construction was only thought up once the damage was already done.
Brainard said you always have to be mindful about how construction affects business which is why you can work on a piece of the project at a time so there’s always a way for people to access the businesses.
“Construction can be difficult but it’s necessary to help a city grow,” he said. “We try to make it work as best as possible and the overall result is going to be great improvement.”
Brainard said he’s reluctant to name exact figures for the cost of the Keystone project because of past experiences. He doesn’t want to get caught saying an estimate and then find out it would cost more because then he would be accused of not being truthful with the public.
Brainard said there’s 3,300 businesses in Carmel and 75 corporate headquarters and that having efficient corridors, such as U.S. 31 after its current renovations, will help people quickly drive to downtown Indianapolis or even Chicago. Reducing that drive time makes Carmel an attractive destination, Brainard said, which is why improving traffic flow at 96th and Keystone even more crucial.
If there’s a big tourist event in downtown Indianapolis, such as the upcoming Final Four, perhaps visitors wouldn’t mind staying in Carmel if it’s easy to jump on I-465 through Keystone, he said.
Sharp said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with Brainard on the merits of improving the Keystone intersection. That’s not the point, he said. His concern is how you pay for the projects and what the plan is for managing congestion from construction. Sharp said it all just amounts to empty campaign promises if you don’t have a concrete plan.
“That’s a shame because these are worthwhile projects,” he said. “But there’s no real substance because they didn’t explain how it was going to be paid for.”