Rush hour on Interstate 69 can often be a mess. Thousands of vehicles pour onto the north-south expressway to get to and from work, slowing speeds and making passing difficult.
Yet the commute on Fort Wayne's other interstate - I-469, just a few miles east - is a different story. Lanes are typically free of congestion, and save for the occasional 18-wheeler, driving at or above the 70 mph limit is fairly simple throughout the day.
Twenty years after the first segment opened - the entire highway was completed in 1995 - Interstate 469's traffic counts lag far behind those of I-69 and many other major area thoroughfares. Fort Wayne drivers, it appears, choose to bypass the bypass, even though it is the most expensive public works project in Allen County's history, with a price tag of $207 million.
John Stafford, director of the Community Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said one of the main reasons the road isn't heavily traveled is because it doesn't include a lot of destinations.
“It just doesn't link up much locally that you would drive on it,” Stafford said.
Stafford worked for the Allen County Plan Commission during the planning of I-469. He and other planners said the highway is still relatively new and will eventually spur growth, which will lead to increased use.
Only one section of I-469 has traffic counts comparable with those I-69. The section between Maplecrest Road and I-69 sees more than 45,000 vehicles daily, according to a 2007 traffic count.
The least-used section, between Marion Center and Tillman roads, has 13,562 vehicles daily. By comparison, Illinois Road between I-69 and Getz Road sees about 35,000 vehicles daily, and I-69 between Goshen and Illinois roads has 70,526 vehicles each day.
Interstate 675 connects Interstate 70 and Interstate 75 around the southeast part of Dayton. It is similar to I-469 in shape, but the traffic on the Dayton bypass is much heavier, necessitating three lanes in each direction for much of the interstate. The slowest section of I-675 had just less than 40,000 vehicles a day, which would have made it the second-most traveled section of I-469.
Dan Avery, northeast Indiana's regional transportation coordination director, said the comparison isn't fair because I-75 carries far more traffic than I-69, and Dayton is a larger metropolitan area than Fort Wayne.
The proximity of Columbus and Cincinnati also adds traffic to the Dayton bypass, he said.
The numbers, especially for the southern part of I-469 - dubbed the Ronald Reagan Expressway in 2005 - are especially light. As the nearly 31-mile interstate drops south of New Haven and U.S. 30, the drivers disappear, from 30,839 vehicles a day around New Haven to less than half that.
This year the state awarded two contracts totaling $4.5 million to replace worn concrete on 22 miles of I-469.
The referendum defeat of the Anthony Wayne Expressway through the heart of Fort Wayne in 1947 didn't end the desire for major through routes. The construction of I-69 in the 1960s didn't either.
In fact, the 1990 transportation plan, created in 1970, included a north-south and east-west expressway, according to Eli Samaan, who was director of the regional transportation planning group at the time. Samaan, currently a transportation consultant with A&Z Engineering, said the plan also included a smaller route around Fort Wayne to the south and east.
Fort Wayne Mayor Ivan Lebamoff jumped at the idea of creating an east-west route in the 1970s, Samaan said, which was approved by the state. But the $110 million needed for its construction couldn't be found. The death of that idea forced Samaan and others to start anew. So when the state wanted to get rid of U.S. 24 through Fort Wayne because of traffic concerns, the bypass idea was born.
During the 1970s, numerous state and federal routes ran throughout Fort Wayne, carrying heavy trucks through urban neighborhoods. Anthony Boulevard was a state route, as was Stellhorn Road. But the worst offender was Coliseum Boulevard, the city's original bypass. For decades, the area had a booming commercial presence and traffic bottlenecks
Stafford said support for I-469 came “in large measure because Coliseum Boulevard just wasn't able to move traffic.”
Getting the project approved was no guarantee, as Samaan said he had to persuade Gov. Otis Bowen in 1978 to expedite construction of the road, which originally was scheduled to go only from its current southern I-69 interchange to U.S. 24. By 1981, Samaan said the project was enlarged to complete a half-loop around the city to meet with I-69 on the north. It also helped that Congress raised the gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon in 1982 to provide more money for construction projects.
One more hurdle appeared, as General Motors announced in 1984 - just as contracts were about to awarded - that it was building a massive plant near the bypass to the south. The planned diamond interchange at Lafayette Center Road would not serve the extra traffic from GM, but fortunately the state realized the importance of helping such a large employer, Samaan said.
“I never have seen anything move that fast in my whole life,” he said.
Bypass construction began in 1988, when the first southern segment was completed between I-69 and Lafayette Center Road. The road received its interstate designation in July 1989, which Samaan said adds prestige to the area in attracting developers.
Officials said one of the biggest benefits to having the bypass was removing heavy through-truck traffic from urban streets. About 30 percent of I-469's vehicles are trucks and other large vehicles.
Jim Keefer, district construction engineer for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said people might think Coliseum Boulevard traffic is bad now, but it was worse before I-469.
“It was bumper-to-bumper trucks all the time,” he said. “That traffic has virtually disappeared.”
Rick Lehman, head of sales and quality control for Fort Wayne-based Keystone Concrete Inc., said the bypass has helped trucking companies save money because driving on the interstate is more fuel-efficient than through town, especially with large trucks.
“It's definitely made travel much easier,” he said. “We definitely use it.”
John Brooks, executive vice president of Brooks Construction, said while his company uses the bypass frequently, he sometimes doesn't think about it when traveling around Fort Wayne.
“The one thing that has frankly astonished me, we're all so ingrained in our habits that sometimes you forget it's even there,” he said. “For people that have been in the community longer, sometimes you forget it's an option.”
But while I-469 is called the bypass, it likely won't ever serve as one for people traveling north or south through the city. While signs direct I-69 through-traffic to I-469, most drivers in the know avoid the route. Taking I-469 would add 12 miles to a trip around Fort Wayne compared with taking I-69.
In fact, Dan O'Connell, president and chief executive officer of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau, wants those signs taken down so people unfamiliar with the area drive through Fort Wayne instead of around it, both to save them time and to better highlight the amenities the city offers.
Lehman said he doubted trucks or any drivers would use I-469 as a bypass from north to south, but he said it helps going east and west.
Stafford, with IPFW, said comparing Coliseum with what it was and is now is only part of the equation. He said it's even more important to consider how clogged it would be with vehicles had I-469 not been built.
Avery said he believes the interstate has added value to the area, and in time will help spur development. He said the state's commitment to improve U.S. 24 will only make the I-469 bypass more important as vehicles use U.S. 24 to drive east and west instead of the Indiana Toll Road.
Samaan said he knew firsthand about the problems of trucks throughout the city while attending Indiana Tech. He said I-469 has helped make Fort Wayne a city to be proud of.
“It cleaned it up,” he said. “We have a beautiful city.”