ELKHART — Entering Elkhart from the south via S.R. 19, motorists don’t exactly get the best impression of the city, some leaders here say.
The rusty Norfolk Southern Railroad underpass just south of Franklin Street is one of the first things to greet motorists coming here and they say it sends the wrong message. “Things like that make the whole community look bad,” said John Letherman, president of the Elkhart County Council.
Rest easy — relief is coming, or could be coming.
Elkhart City Engineer Mike Machlan said Tuesday, June 19, that the city has received permission from Norfolk Southern, owner of the crossing, to paint the underpass. But the work wouldn’t likely happen until after the ongoing S.R. 19 road upgrade in the zone is done late next year.
And the city has to foot the bill.
“I’m sure we’ll do it. It’s just a matter of when,” said Machlan.
Machlan also said the city received permission from Norfolk Southern to paint the Oakland Avenue underpass near Indiana Avenue. That project will likely be bid out within weeks and take place over the summer.
“Both of them are unsightly,” said Machlan.
‘HULK OF UGLINESS’
The well-worn S.R. 19 underpass has been a particularly sore point for some local officials, such as Laura Coyne, community development coordinator at the Elkhart County Planning Department.
S.R. 19 stretching from Lusher Avenue just south of the railroad crossing north to Beardsley Avenue is the focus of a $14.84 million upgrade. Yet, until Machlan’s statement Tuesday, there was no plan to improve the underpass as part of the project.
“What should be a welcome sign is a deterrent from thinking anything positive is going on in the corridor,” said Coyne.
She called the underpass a “rusting hulk of ugliness,” and it was singled out by a joint committee of Elkhart County and city of Elkhart reps tasked with looking into blight and possible environmental issues along S.R. 19. The committee, Coyne said, deemed the intersection — actually two spans of railroad running across S.R. 19 — the “single most unsightly element” of the S.R. 19 corridor between the Michigan state line and C.R. 26.
A YEAR OF TRYING
Getting permission from Norfolk Southern was no easy task. Since the S.R. 19 underpass — structurally sound though aesthetically lacking — is the railroad company’s property, Norfolk Southern officials call the shots.
Machlan said it took the city about a year of corresponding with company reps to finally get the green light about two months ago.
Officials from the Indiana Department of Transportation and Goshen-based contractor Rieth-Riley, though, asked the city to hold off on painting until after the S.R. 19 road work finishes, probably around the summer or fall of 2014. They want to complete the road upgrade as quick as possible and worry that painting the underpass at the same time would slow things.
City officials will have to re-evaluate the underpass plans once the S.R. 19 upgrade is finished, according to Machlan, but he expressed confidence the delay wouldn’t halt the painting effort. He offered no estimate on how much it would cost to paint the S.R. 19 underpass.
The plans for S.R. 19, also known as Nappanee Street, call for the addition of a center turn lane along much of the roadway from Lusher Avenue north to Beardsley Avenue.
Work on the section from the St. Joseph River north to Beardsley was completed last year. The current focus is S.R. 19 from the St. Joseph River south to Franklin Street. Next year the focus turns to the S.R. 19 section including the underpass, from Franklin Street south to Lusher Avenue.