U.S. 31 upgrade is becoming a reality
ELKHART -- Traveling U.S. 31 to Indianapolis -- the main link to the state capital from Elkhart -- has its pitfalls.
"I know that road has serious bottlenecks," said Jim Orbik, chief operating officer for Elkhart-based Nautic Global Group, which uses U.S. 31 as a shipment route for the boats it makes. There are numerous traffic lights going through Kokomo, among other issues, and he knows of no motorist who can make it through the city "without several stops."
With work under way since September on two U.S. 31 sections, however -- including the South Bend-Plymouth stretch -- long-standing plans to convert the roadway into an interstate-grade thoroughfare have taken a leap forward. Long-range plans call for shifting the roadway's alignment in some sections between South Bend and Indianapolis to eliminate the worst bottlenecks. Access will be limited all the way to the capital, eliminating the need for stoplights and making for smoother traffic flow.
"Anybody who drives that road on a regular basis hates it and that's just because it's dangerous and it's frustrating and just a very difficult trip," said John Letherman, a project cheerleader and the president of the Elkhart County Council. A revamped roadway, he says, will make for a quicker, safer trip to Indianapolis and, because transport is so important in the business world, enhance efforts to draw new firms to northcentral Indiana.
An important link
U.S. 31 doesn't run through Elkhart. You have to travel about 20 miles west to South Bend via U.S. 20 to get to the roadway. Even so, it's a key link from this part of the state to the south.
Orbik's firm and other manufacturers here, for instance, rely on the highway as a north-south link to suppliers and markets. The only other major north-south roadways that cut through northern Indiana are I-65 in the state's northwest corner and I-69 in the northeast corner.
Letherman also emphasizes U.S. 31's importance in connecting northern Indiana with state lawmakers in Indianapolis. The roadway is vital to local officials who travel to the capital to make sure this area's interests are represented, yet "you just can't go to Indianapolis and back without killing a whole day," he lamented.
Indeed, though it's a four-lane divided highway in most sections, Letherman is quick to reel off the obstacles on the way to Indianapolis -- 43 stoplights, 11 yellow flashing caution lights and five railroad crossings. Then there's the time it takes to get there, anywhere from three hours and 15 minutes to five hours, and the threat of collisions with cross traffic traveling the many intersecting roadways.
"You get farm wagons and trucks and school buses and everything going back and forth and across," Letherman said. Half joking, he says motorists wanting to cross U.S. 31 from intersecting roads, frustrated at finding a gap in traffic, sometimes just close their eyes, hit the accelerator and hope for the best.
In light of the varied bottlenecks, the key element of the U.S. 31 plans is converting the roadway into a limited-access highway.
Access via some roads that cross U.S. 31 in the South Bend-Indianapolis stretch would be eliminated to accommodate the change. On and off ramps, meanwhile, would be built to facilitate entry and exit to intersecting roadways at other points -- the same as on freeways -- eliminating the need for stoplights. In some sections, notably the South Bend-Plymouth stretch and around Kokomo, the roadway would be built on new alignment, getting it out of highly developed corridors and enabling construction of a more free-flowing roadway.
Whatever the case, it's been a long process.
Letherman and other local boosters launched their efforts in earnest in the late 1990s, forming the U.S. 31 Coalition to push the cause. Local chambers of commerce, businesses and others joined in, demonstrating a breadth of support that translated into political support in Indianapolis.
With the lease in 2006 of Indiana Toll Road operations by the state for $3.8 billion, $1.2 billion became available and the U.S. 31 plans entered another phase. The money will help revamp the South Bend-Plymouth section, the Kokomo bypass and the busy corridor north of Indianapolis in Hamilton County. Gov. Mitch Daniels launched work on the first two of those three upgrades in ceremonies in September.
What had been "a lot of promises and studies" suddenly became reality, said Dennis Falkenberg, and with construction starting, "it's a huge, huge milestone." Falkenberg, a former Indiana Department of Transportation official, heads a consulting firm and lobbies in Indianapolis on behalf of the U.S. 31 Coalition.
Nonethless, much work lies ahead.
The South Bend-Plymouth section isn't expected to be done until 2015; work on the various Kokomo sections will be bid out by 2011 and the Hamilton County stretch will be finished by 2018. Then there's the 78 miles of rural roadway that hasn't received funding.
Letherman acknowledges the three funded U.S. 31 sections may be the only areas to get attention for a while, though upgrades to the unfunded stretches are in INDOT's long-range plan. Still, the hassles of driving U.S. 31 are embedded in his memory and he remains determined.
"All you have to do is run that road a few times to know how horrible it can be," he said.