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The last couple of weeks have served up an impromptu practice round on one of the more controversial issues of the upcoming legislative session – the ability of businesses to require COVID vaccines to protect employees and customers.

Legislative leaders had scheduled a one-day special session for November 29th to make statutory adjustments requested by Governor Holcomb to wind down the public health emergency – allowing the continuation of enhanced federal funding for Medicaid and food assistance programs and expanding vaccination options for 5-11 year-olds. So far, so good.

But the draft language included an unwelcome addition: Restrictions on employer vaccine requirements in the form of an overly broad, “no questions asked” exemption policy.

A joint meeting of the House and Senate Rules Committees was held last Tuesday to hear public testimony on this provision and the rest of the proposal, and we swung into action to testify against the restrictions. Ultimately, the seven-hour session ended up as a dress rehearsal for a future debate, as lawmakers nixed Monday’s agenda and instead filed the bill as HB1001 for consideration in regular business.

Buying Time:

You read that correctly, by the way – seven hours of testimony. We joined the Indiana Chamber and representatives of other industry, healthcare and social service organizations, alongside Hoosiers from many walks of life motivated by concern for their families, friends and co-workers to make the case for private sector decision-making and public health objectives.

On one level, our message was simple: Employers are the best-positioned authority on safety and stability in their workplaces. They must retain the flexibility to make tough calls in challenging times, looking out for the lives and livelihoods of all their employees.

Indiana also prides itself on a pro-business environment, featuring a limited tax burden and freedom from onerous red tape. This provision reverses that tradition, chipping away at the ability of private companies to set terms of employment.

It also potentially traps businesses in a confusing conflict between state and federal mandates: Some federal vaccine rules (OSHA and CMS) face continued legal battles; others (affecting federal contractors) still stand. We ask the state to side with employers, not put them in the middle of a regulatory tug-of-war.

Ultimately, we want our members to reap the rewards of a strong, sustained recovery from the COVID pandemic. Increasing vaccination rates is a public health necessity and an economic development priority.

We hope to work with pro-business legislators to protect the rights of employers while promoting common-sense precautions against a pandemic that’s far from over.

Hitting the Road:

Thanksgiving week is typically one of the heaviest travel times of the year, and we hope your trips to visit family and friends were safe and hassle-free. Frankly, that sums up how we judge transportation systems like highways: Get us from Point A to Point B unscathed, as quickly and efficiently as possible and we’ll be thankful (until the next time we get stuck in traffic).

But what if we expanded the criteria for successful infrastructure to look at economic impact, development potential, quality of life and even issues of equity and inclusion? What return does the community get for the huge investments we make in infrastructure assets?

In our last update, we mentioned our partnership with the Rethink Coalition to advance a new vision for the I-65 and I-70 “inner loop” to and through downtown Indianapolis – here’s some backstory:

The last section of the Inner Loop was completed in 1976, and the 31 miles of I-65 and I-70 inside I-465 is handling more than double the daily traffic anticipated by planners more than 50 years ago. These interstates need more than resurfacing and repair projects—they’ll need to be replaced entirely.

So with one chance every half-century or so to rethink the Inner Loop (and a price tag of $2-3 billion to rebuild it), it’s essential to get it right. This led us to join with the Rethink Coalition (a movement that started in the neighborhoods most affected by the current Inner Loop) to commission an analysis of feasible alternatives for the highways’ design.

The study compares the status quo with a recessed design for the Inner Loop, removing elevated sections of interstate between interchanges and rebuilding them below grade – you can check out renderings of the recessed design in the Inner Loop Visionary Study here.

Why do we believe the recessed option is worth exploring? Think of the key benefits as the “three Rs:” Reducing the interstate footprint, reconnecting downtown streets and neighborhoods, and revitalizing areas impacted by the economic, environmental and aesthetic consequences of elevated interstate construction:

  • By reducing the right-of-way needed to build up the elevated legs of the Inner Loop, the recessed design cuts the interstate corridor width nearly in half with the same number of travel lanes.
  • This creates nearly 50 acres of land newly-available for redevelopment, green space and other uses across the system, valuable real estate in some of the fastest-growing areas of Indiana’s densest employment and population center.
  • Adding new acreage to the urban core (and the property tax base) will also help maximize projects like the Methodist Hospital expansion, Elanco’s redevelopment of the GM stamping plant and beautification efforts in the southwest gateway to downtown – land is a limiting factor in allowing these and other major investments to realize their full economic impact.
  • City streets can also be routed over the recessed sections, maintaining interstate traffic flow along with a crosstown traffic grid that reconnects downtown neighborhoods. (And more land can even be created by building over – “capping” – parts of the recessed sections.)
  • Living alongside elevated interstates impacts basic quality of life in nearby neighborhoods – traffic noise, increased air pollution, aesthetics and safety hazards of higher-speed traffic. Recessed interstates make these areas more livable, more convenient to get to-and-from, and more appealing for revitalization, new investment, and enterprise creation.

Speaking of new investment, the market value of the land reclaimed by the recessed interstate option is estimated at nearly $100 million, with potential to attract another $2.5 billion in real estate investment and create 24,000 new jobs.

We noted these figures last time, but they bear repeating – the higher upfront construction cost for the recessed system (about $500 million) is dwarfed by the return-on-investment. It’s essential that we learn from the last round of highway construction and ask new questions about how infrastructure investments will drive additional growth.

Downtown Indianapolis is the heart of our city and regional economy. It’s grown beyond what politicians and planners imagined back in the 1960s – now the elevated Inner Loop actually creates barriers to new development. We can do better.

And we need to jump-start the discussion now, as future sections of the Inner Loop will be included in state transportation plans over the next decade or so. We also have opportunities for federal funding in the new infrastructure bill (the ‘Reconnecting Communities’ program) aimed at addressing the inequities created by the displacement and destruction of highway construction through urban neighborhoods.

It’s time to recognize the rebuilding of the Inner Loop for what it is—one of the largest economic development projects Indy will see for the next generation and a chance to literally remake the way Downtown moves, works, and grows. This isn’t a rehearsal and there are no do-overs once construction starts, so let’s get to work!

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