Indiana tries traffic management tactics in lieu of new lanes


Without the money to expand a key artery, Indiana transportation officials are pursuing what they say is an innovative plan to increase the road’s capacity without widening it.

The Indiana Department of Transportation’s FlexRoad project spans a 12-mile stretch of the combined Interstate 80 and 94 from I-65 in northwest Indiana across the border to the junction with Illinois Route 394.

Transportation officials tout the $212.5 million project for its traffic management approaches, which include opening up the shoulder to traffic during peak commuting times, variable speed limits, and installing traffic metering lights at highway on-ramps, but it remains to be seen if such measures will solve the corridor’s problems.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb called FlexRoad “a transformational opportunity to improve mobility and safety.”

Bloomberg News

“This stretch of I-80/94 is one of the most congested corridors in northwest Indiana, and probably in the Midwest, which is why INDOT is doing a [Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL)] study to determine the best course of action to plan for future increases in traffic,” said Charles Bradsky, transportation projects manager for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.

The FlexRoad efforts were boosted with a $127 million grant announced this month from the National Infrastructure Project Assistance fund, a.k.a. the Mega Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Mega was created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021, which awards grants to projects deemed to improve regional or national economic, mobility or safety conditions.

According to INDOT’s public relations director for northwest Indiana, Cassandra Bajek, the remaining money “will be state funding.” Indiana’s 2024-25 budget appropriates $143.9 million for the highway maintenance work program, which includes traffic control measures.

The eight-lane highway connects Indiana towns like Hammond, Munster and Gary to their neighbors across the state line, South Holland and Lansing. The average annual daily traffic along that corridor ranges from 158,000 vehicles to as many as 204,000 vehicles, according to INDOT’s PEL study report published in 2022. And by 2040, traffic volumes along the corridor are projected to rise nearly 20%.

That same report says the state is turning to Transportation Systems Management and Operations strategies — dynamic shoulder lanes, ramp metering, variable speed limits, lane control and queue warning systems — because it is too expensive to add lanes or undertake other long-term solutions. 

“Neither INDOT nor the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s (NIRPC) long range plans identify funds for significant expansion in the corridor, such as adding additional travel lanes, that would address the corridor’s issues 20-30 years into the future because they are likely beyond the states’ available funding,” the report concludes. 

Variable speed limits involve changeable speed limit signage along the road that shifts with traffic conditions; lane control entails closing or opening individual lanes of traffic; and queue warning systems are roadside signs advising drivers of slowdowns ahead. 

Construction on FlexRoad is slated to start in 2026. 

In a press release, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb called FlexRoad “a transformational opportunity to improve mobility and safety,” and state officials are also promising the TSMO measures will reduce carbon emissions.

According to a recent problem statement from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the impacts of TSMO tactics on traveler behavior “are not well known.” 

Some traffic safety studies are being conducted — involving the collection of crash data for three to five years before and after a TSMO intervention — but as graduate engineering student Jake Robbennolt and John Hourdos, director of the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory, write in a recent paper, “waiting six to 10 years to determine whether [a traffic management] system is effective has serious drawbacks.”

INDOT says it is collaborating with the Federal Highway Administration and the Illinois Department of Transportation on FlexRoad. IDOT did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

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