by Thomas P. Healy
The Dec. 14, 2015, decision by Mayor Greg Ballard to lend the City’s support as local partner to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) preferred strategy to complete the North Indianapolis Flood Wall project has managed to annoy just about every stakeholder and infuriate the rest.
A fragile alliance between neighborhood groups, Butler University, and Citizens Energy Group (CEG) had coalesced after the USACE issued its Record of Decision (ROD) in 2014 that designated the Westfield Alignment as its preferred option.
Bowing to public pressure, the City informed USACE it would not support the Westfield Alignment. Without the City’s support, USACE could not proceed with design, engineering, and construction. As local partner, the City holds enormous leverage, for examining an alternative option in the West Bank Alignment.
USACE had rejected the West Bank Alignment as not meeting the necessary cost-benefit ratio. The Corps’ position was clear: If the City wanted to proceed with the West Bank Alignment, it would have to pick up the tab. Allies urged the City to fund a thorough feasibility study of the alternative that could meet USACE’s criteria for certification. Without USACE certification, the project could not be forwarded to the Federal Emergency Management Administration for determining which properties could be removed from floodplain designation.
In early 2015, the City’s project manager, consultant Michael Massonne, crafted a $250,000 engineering study, Canal West Bank Alignment Analysis conducted by Christopher B. Burke Engineering during the summer. At a December meeting with representatives from Butler, CEG, and affected neighborhoods, Massonne and City officials told the group that USACE had a list of questions about the study that needed answering and that the analysis remained “under review.”
Eight days later, the City publicly announced its support of the Westfield Alignment, which surprised and dismayed most of those who had attended the meeting. Some said they felt betrayed. According to sources involved, the City gave the impression that the issue would be left for the Hogsett administration to decide.
The Ballard administration’s revised position says the Westfield Alignment has several attractive elements:
- little or no property acquisition costs because the right-of-way is either public or owned by a public utility;
- no need for residential demolition and home-owner displacement;
- a fast-track path to completion; and
- USACE won’t certify the West Bank Alignment.
Further, sources in the Ballard administration said, USACE leadership told them they had turned away money to complete the North Indy Levee project on two occasions and didn’t want that to happen a third time.
Divide and Conquer
The allies were united in a commitment to protect the structural integrity of the Central Canal and to seek maximum flood protection for the maximum number of households at the most reasonable cost. But a “divide-and-conquer” approach that sacrifices some to reward others can always rupture such fragile coalitions.
The winners include some homeowners who fear they will lose federally subsidized flood insurance slated to be phased out in 2018. They want the City to act quickly to approve the Westfield Alignment. Another beneficiary is CEG, which stands to gain a $15.6 million emergency water intake supply at 30th Street and White River Parkway.
According to CEG spokeswoman Sarah Holsapple, “Citizens opposed the Westfield alignment previously because the proposed Canal gate structure would cut off water supply to downtown Indianapolis and the City had not addressed how they would remedy that issue. The City’s commitment to share in the cost of a new drinking water intake downstream of the Canal Gate structure addressed Citizens’ previous concerns. It assures continued safe and reliable service for our customers in the future if the gate structure is placed and utilized.” Holsapple said the floodgate would be designed by USACE, not CEG. “But we will have input regarding access and safety features,” she said.
The biggest loser is the town of Rocky Ripple. Twenty years ago the town was given an opportunity to vote on the original USACE proposal, which protected the community. Nevertheless, a slight majority of town residents voted against it, and the town has been shut out of flood protection ever since. USACE has made it clear it cannot justify the cost-benefit of including Rocky Ripple in the Levee project. If isolated by it, the town will have to evacuate in the event of flooding.
Another loser is Butler University. The levee in the Westfield Alignment would carve a path through Holcomb Gardens, and USACE standards require a 15-foot zone clear of vegetation on either side of the slope.
A Hot Mess for Hogsett
Given that Joe Hogsett’s transition team had been working diligently since November to get up to speed on this complex issue, questions arose: Would the Ballard administration have made its announcement in support of the Westfield Alignment without Hogsett’s blessing? What did the Hogsett team know about the shift away from support for the West Bank alternative, and when?
Based on information from key sources in both administrations, two scenarios emerge. A high-ranking member of the Ballard administration maintained that the Hogsett team had been advised of the change in policy position and supported it. Not exactly, according to members of the Hogsett administration. The transition team was briefed, one source confirmed, but stopped short of saying he signed off on it.
Another Hogsett team member indicated that the briefing left no room for debate. “They said the Corps were gonna pull funds, and that they weren’t going to let that happen.” At a January public safety meeting, the newly elected mayor skirted questions about the levee project, except to say, “We’re hearing a lot about it,” and confirmed that he was scheduled to meet with Butler University President James Danko.
Former City-County Councillor Ben Hunter, Danko’s chief of staff, helped set up the January meeting. “Nothing earth-shattering to report,” he said afterward, adding that Mayor Hogsett listened thoughtfully. Hunter said Danko expressed concern about construction damage to Holcomb Gardens, and that Butler’s Board of Trustees will meet in March to discuss whether to reverse the university’s position, which included protection for Rocky Ripple.
“Mayor Hogsett said he’s looking at all the options on the table,” Hunter said. That bodes well for an upcoming meeting Hogsett’s team has called with a group of stakeholders. Even though his predecessor made the decision, Hogsett is the one who bears the burden of implementing it or walking it back for further study. Time will tell which choice is the winning strategy.