ELKHART — Build an overpass and the motorists will travel?
That mantra will hopefully play out after construction of the Prairie Street overpass in Elkhart is finished a few years from now as city planners work to reshape downtown driving habits while also reducing the dreaded congestion from train traffic on South Main Street.
An average of about 7,200 motorists use Prairie Street, but after the overpass is completed, the amount of traffic could triple by 2028, according to a projection by American Structurepoint, Indianapolis, which is overseeing the project.
The overpass will serve as a preferred thoroughfare for north-south traffic and a solution to train-induced congestion near the Norfolk Southern tracks.
Upward of 100 trains pass along the tracks each day, causing hours of congestion at the Main and Prairie street crossings.
The intended shift in traffic coincides with Mayor Dick Moore’s belief that Main Street especially the portion that tracks through the downtown business district should not be viewed as a thoroughfare.
The overpass will also give motorists a faster track from the south side of the city to as far north as the Indiana Toll without a chance of running into major railroad traffic, according to Leslie Biek, traffic engineer for the city.
To help carry the traffic, the number of lanes on Prairie between Main Street and Division streets will increase from two to four and will blend with the existing four lanes further north.
Construction of the overpass is expected to begin in earnest in 2014 and will take about two and a half years to complete.
And while the earth movers won’t arrive for another year, the city is starting to make offers to property owners whose land is needed for the project. The city needs to acquire 14 properties, including two businesses and one apartment building and a handful of houses.
Officials hope to have acquisitions complete by April, she said.
Biek said a proposal to provide the city’s local match for the $25 million project could be presented to city boards as early as next month.
The local match is expected to be more than $3 million and will likely involve several revenue sources.
Those include tax increment finance money, which is controlled by the redevelopment commission; civil city funds, which are controlled by city council, and utility money through the board of public works.
Other related projects are already being planned ahead of the overpass.
I&M, Verizon and NIPSCO will be moving underground utilities and the city will also construct new stormwater and sewer lines. Some of that will involve the massive combined sewer overflow project, Biek said.
In addition to the overpass, a ten-foot wide pedestrian path will be constructed along the east side of the overpass.
Two intersections — Main and Prairie as well as Prairie and Middlebury Street — will be reconstructed with turn lanes.
The Prairie Street bridge, north of the future project, is currently being rehabbed and will be closed until late summer.
St. Vincent De Paul, a church that sits on the southeast corner of Prairie and Main, will have a new entrance constructed off Prairie, Biek said.
She said the entire project should be completed by the fall of 2016.
A smaller secondary set of tracks that run just to the north is not part of the physical overpass, but the intersection, including train signals, will be upgraded.
About five trains pass along those tracks each day, Biek said.
Extending the overpass north to accommodate those tracks would have been too costly, she said.
The Prairie Street overpass will mark the second major project aimed at overcoming train congestion in recent years. The Indiana Street underpass was completed about seven years ago. Another similar plan for East Hively Avenue is no longer a front burner issue because of the lack of funding, Biek said.