When the trains rumble through, traffic at the Old U.S. 33-Ash Road crossing in the Jimtown area can become a quagmire.
If it happens at rush hour, all bets are off. The lines of backed-up cars grow, the wait time to pass through gets longer and some motorists get impatient and forge their own impromptu workarounds. Barb Riley, who lives in the zone at the Elkhart County-St. Joseph County line, worries the chaos will someday result in an accident.
“Ugh, I don't feel good about it,” she said.
The closure last April of S.R. 933 in St. Joseph County just west of the crossing so a bridge over Baugo Creek can be rebuilt is taking a toll. Heading west from Elkhart County into St. Joseph County, S.R. 933 is the busy continuation of Old U.S. 33 here, also a busy roadway.
Motorists have to find a way around S.R. 933, and that's pushed autos to other roadways and increased southbound Ash Road traffic flow across the rail line that parallels Old U.S. 33 and S.R. 933 just to the south.
The project, expected to last at least about three more months, has prompted motorists to come up with not-quite-legal detours, raising the specter of accidents.
Without the traffic relief valve of S.R. 933, it's increased congestion at peak times, increasing wait times at red lights.
And it's frazzling the nerves of some, like Riley. She lives in St. Joseph County near the work zone but works in Elkhart and frequently travels the crossing.
“You can't print what I want to say,” said Tom Trethewey, filling his car with gas at the Phillips 66 station at the northeast corner of Ash Road and Old U.S. 33. “It's a major inconvenience.”
Crystal Martin, filling her auto at an adjacent pump, chimed in. She lives off Mishawaka Road on the Elkhart County side of Ash Road, just south of the Old U.S. 33 crossing, and says autos back up there as well at times, sometimes going off road through her yard to bypass congestion.
“I live it day to day,” she said. “It's a pain.”
The bridge reconstruction is an Indiana Department of Transportation project, and INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley is aware of the issues and knows it's an inconvenience. He counsels drivers to consider detours that keep them away from the area, if possible.
“I have heard of traffic issues in that area, and we have been in contact with local authorities who are watching for any traffic control adjustments they can do to help,” Deitchley said in an email. “But ultimately, drivers must obey traffic laws.”
'A COMPLETE BRIDGE REPLACEMENT'
The bridge project started April 7, when S.R. 933 closed just west of Ash Road, the north-south roadway known as County Line Road in Elkhart County and the dividing line between Elkhart and St. Joseph counties. The bridge has reached the end of its lifespan, according to Deitchley, and the structure is being replaced.
“This is a complete bridge replacement, which takes longer to complete than something smaller like a bridge deck replacement,” Deitchley wrote in his email. “We are tearing the entire old bridge down and building a brand new one. This takes time.”
In fact, the new bridge — being built by LaPorte Construction for $1.06 million — should be complete and S.R. 933 re-opened by around Nov. 1, weather permitting. That would make it about a seven-month project in all.
INDOT has identified a formal detour around the spot that takes motorists north more than a mile-and-a-half to Old U.S. 20, an east-west road known as McKinley Road in St. Joseph County.
But the reality is that people continue to travel the Ash Road-Old U.S. 33 intersection. They have no other choice given their destinations. Or other detours are simply more trouble than putting up with the congestion they encounter.
'DON'T WANT TO WAIT'
During rush hour on a recent weekday afternoon, traffic at the spot seemed to cycle through without major hitches.
But yes, the lines of autos on Ash Road on both sides of Old U.S. 33 grew long at times, as did the line of westbound traffic on Old U.S. 33.
When trains passed on the track that parallels Old U.S. 33 just to the south, the lines grew. Those who drive the crossing also say traffic accumulates south along Ash Road onto Mishawaka Road, an Elkhart County roadway that parallels the railroad tracks to the south.
Most notably, perhaps, the S.R. 933 closure has increased traffic on Washington Street, the extension of Mishawaka Road into St. Joseph County. With S.R. 933 off-limits to cars just west of Ash Road, many westbound autos now take Old U.S. 33 to Ash Road, cross the railroad tracks to the south and take Washington Street west to get around the construction spot, Trethewey said.
Aside from congestion, the delays at times prompt some motorists to take things into their own hands.
Riley and Tori Armstrong, a Jimtown area resident who frequently drives through the area, said motorists on Mishawaka Road and Washington Street sometimes cross into lanes of oncoming traffic to bypass stopped lines of autos. Sometimes the oncoming lanes are clear of traffic, allowing them to complete their illegal maneuvers. Other times the impatient drivers are surprised by oncoming autos. Armstrong said she's witnessed three near crashes in such circumstances.
Southbound Ash Road motorists, meanwhile, sometimes travel on the shoulder to sneak around the backed-up line of autos. “People shoot down the shoulder and I'm worried they're going to hit somebody,” Riley said.
She wonders why the bridge project is taking so long and worries what will happen when schools re-open, potentially increasing bus traffic from area public schools in the area.
“It wasn't that bad in the beginning,” she said. “But people have gotten increasingly more impatient as time goes by. They don't want to wait.”
Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack.
View Ash and Old U.S. 33 in a larger map