ELKHART — It was as bad as Chicago.
That’s what one motorist from the Windy City had to say after traveling S.R. 19, also known as Nappanee Street, on the west side of Elkhart. Travel times south of the St. Joseph River on Thursday and Friday spiked as the road project there entered a new phase, accompanied by the closure of Franklin Street, and bumper-to-bumper traffic seemed to be the norm.
“It’s bad. ... It’s horrendous,” said Jack Golden. Golden, in Elkhart County on business, had withstood snail-like traffic flow on S.R. 19 for about 15 minutes Thursday, Sept. 12, to get from the U.S. 20 Bypass north to the Big and Tall Outlet, a 3-mile trip that usual takes just a few minutes.
“(Traffic) never opened,” he said, resting his jangled nerves in the clothing shop, a usual stop for the tall businessman when he travels here. “I’m from Chicago, and this is just as bad as anything I’ve seen there.”
The occasional traffic snarls caused by the ongoing Indiana Department of Transportation upgrade of S.R. 19 have become expected, perhaps, to motorists traveling the busy commercial corridor. The work started last year, with improvements already done on the section from the St. Joseph River north to Beardsley Avenue and construction continuing on the segment from the river south to Lusher Avenue.
But with the project now in a new phase, the congestion seems to have spiked to a new level. Travel on the segment from Lexington Avenue south to Indiana Avenue, less then three-quarters of a mile, took more than 10 minutes Thursday afternoon. Travel Friday morning from Lusher Avenue north to Indiana Avenue, about a half-mile segment, took nearly 13 minutes.
On Wednesday, INDOT contractor Rieth-Riley Construction of Goshen shifted S.R. 19 traffic between the St. Joseph River and Franklin Street to the newly completed western half of the roadway from the eastern side, which now becomes the focus of work. Crews on Thursday and Friday tore up the eastern side of the roadway, and the many dump trucks coming and going to retrieve and haul off the rubble caused the snarls and back-ups, said Greg Heeter, owner of the Big and Tall Outlet.
At the same time, Franklin Street further south was closed off on the east side of S.R. 19 so the crossing can be rebuilt, another aspect of the project. Franklin Street on the west side of S.R. 19 was closed off on July 30 to permit work there, eliminating the crossing as a traffic relief valve and compounding S.R. 19 congestion.
“We’re watching with a lot of concern every day, hoping the weather will hold and they’ll get done quickly,” said Heeter, generally complimentary of how the road project has proceeded. His business is located at the northern end of the construction zone and he has kept close tabs on the work as it has progressed.
MANY BUSINESSES IMPACTED
It’s not clear if the bumper-to-bumper traffic is just a temporary blip as the old section of S.R. 19 is removed and dump trucks come and go. INDOT spokeswoman Mary Foster said in an email Thursday that officials hope to complete the S.R. 19 roadway improvements yet this year, but she didn’t have any more timeline specifics.
She noted the impact of the timing of the signal at the S.R. 19-Indiana Avenue crossing, which allows for protected left-hand turns. On the other hand, Franklin Street on the west side of S.R. 19, she added, should open by the middle of next week, and that could create some potential relief to congestion.
Whatever the case, the situation was worrisome to Kenny Chang, owner of the Jade Garden. Business is down perhaps 15 percent, he estimates, and with the change Wednesday, it’s even more difficult to get in his business.
“I think it’s tougher than before,” said Chang.
Jade Garden is located south of the St. Joseph River on the east side of S.R. 19. With work now focused on the roadway directly in front of his business, access to the eatery is limited. The main entry is normally via a driveway into S.R. 19, but now motorists have to travel to Indiana Avenue two blocks to the south, take that east a block to Laramie Street and then take Laramie Street north to the rear entry of Jade Garden.
Many other businesses are located on the east side of S.R. 19 — Advanced Auto Parts, Family Video, McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Chase Bank, Family Dollar, Auto Zone and more. As of Friday morning, there appeared to be only two access points directly off S.R. 19 on the east side of the roadway to the businesses there.
The grand S.R. 19 plans call for the widening of the roadway between Beardsley and Lusher avenues, from four to five lanes with the addition of a center turn lane. That’ll make it safer to make left-hand turns into business from S.R. 19 and ease congestion, according to INDOT officials.
The Franklin Street-S.R. 19 crossing is also being rebuilt to improve flow there, the storm sewer system in the section is being replaced and many other improvements are also in the works. Though the roadway improvements, launched last year, should largely be done sometime this year, ahead of schedule, work on additional aspects of the project — landscaping and sidewalks, for instance — will extend into 2014.