ELKHART — Many times, road improvement projects result in added travel lanes, all the better for carrying autos and maintaining smooth traffic flow.
A proposal to tweak a deadly four-lane stretch of S.R. 19 near Simonton Lake north of Elkhart, though, goes in the other direction. In the name of improved safety, the Indiana Department of Transportation intends on reducing the number of travel lanes at a problematic curve in the section from two in each direction to one. A center turn lane would be added between the two travel lanes.
The plans are generating support from some.
Reducing the number of lanes would have a “definite calming effect” on traffic, forcing autos in the busy, fast-moving stretch to slow down, making the roadway safer, thinks Dave Foutz. He’s a longtime resident in the area and a member of the Elkhart County Council.
Others, though, aren’t so sure.
Robin Martin, director of Osolo Emergency Medical Services, worries that reducing the number of travel lanes would result in more congestion and, perhaps, more accidents. Indiana Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, too, has reservations and he wants INDOT to rethink the plans.
Flashing yellow lights were placed on both approaches to the curve late last year and the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department and Indiana State Police have beefed up patrolling at the spot. That, Neese thinks, has gone a long way to improving safety.
“There has been an increased awareness that has slowed traffic down,” said Neese, who’d like a public meeting to let area residents sound off.
INDOT reps, for their part, say there are no plans at this stage to halt their proposal.
“INDOT will be moving forward to make these changes this spring or early summer,” INDOT’s Acting District Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Shaffer said in an e-mail.
‘THE CORRECT ACTION’
The stretch around the S.R. 19 curve by Simonton Lake, roughly between Roseland Road and Quail Ridge Drive, has been the site of three deadly accidents since 2010, according to Martin.
In one, a pedestrian, Wanda Luther of Goshen, was hit by a car and killed on July 4, 2010, while trying to cross the roadway south of North Shore Drive.
In another, Gale Hall of Mishawaka died after she was ejected from a car when it crashed and rolled at the curve. A makeshift memorial remains at the spot near the Lakeshore Grill and the driver of the car, Lynda Nagy, was convicted of drunk driving causing a death and sentenced Thursday to six years imprisonment.
In the wake of the incidents, officials conferred and INDOT experts studied the road section, leading to placement of the flashing lights on either side of the curve, meant to prevent speeding. The actual limit is 40 mph while the recommended speed is 35 mph, but those familiar with the section say motorists routinely go faster.
The notion of narrowing the roadway to two lanes of travel was broached in a meeting of area leaders last December, and now INDOT officials say they are moving ahead with such change.
Specifically, the number of travel lanes would be reduced from two to one in each direction in the 0.7-mile section from Roseland Road north to Quail Ridge Road, with a left-hand turn lane placed between them. The roadway already narrows north of Quail Ridge Road to two lanes.
“INDOT experience with three-lane highways in other communities with similar traffic volumes has been very positive in reducing crashes,” Shaffer said in his e-mail. “INDOT believes it is the correct action to take.”
‘NO, NO, NO’
While the lane reductions would slow auto speed, the center turn lane would make it safer to turn left and reduce the likelihood of rear-end accidents, according to INDOT. Moreover, pedestrians crossing S.R. 19 in the section and autos turning left from side streets would be able to use the center lane as a refuge, of sorts, also augmenting safety.
“If I could have picked a plan, this is what I would have chosen,” said Foutz.
As is, northbound cars speed through the curve, jockeying to get in front of slower-moving cars before the roadway narrows at Quail Ridge Drive, Foutz said. Narrowing it per the INDOT plan further south at Roseland Road would eliminate that sort of maneuvering at the curve.
Still, the skeptics persist.
Osolo Township Trustee Benny Russo, like Neese, thinks the flashing lights and increased law enforcement patrols have helped bring the problem under control. The additional measures are too much.
“Tim (Neese) and I and a lot of other people said no, no, no,” said Russo. “That’s a waste of money.”
The planned pavement markings plus the two flashers have a price tag of $28,000, according to INDOT.
At the Lakeshore Grill, located right on the curve, owner Cam Snyder commends INDOT for investigating the matter, but also has questions. A scrolling LED sign outside his locale flashes the day’s food specials to passing motorists along with the recommended speed limit, 35 mph.
“I think slowing down the traffic is a good idea,” Snyder said. “My concern would be causing congestion.”
S.R. 19 outside his grill was expanded from one lane in each direction to two some years back and that, at the time, was believed to be the proper fix, he further notes. Now it appears the configuration has its flaws, so who’s to say INDOT’s latest plans are the correct remedy?
“You don’t know what the hidden issues are going to be until we experience it,” he said.