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    Ask the Truth: Why build an overpass on Prairie Street instead of Main Street?

    Last week, our readers sent in and voted for our reporters to answer this question about overpasses in the city’s center. Here’s the answer.

    Posted on June 6, 2014 at 2:30 p.m.

    With preliminary work underway ahead of construction of the Prairie Street railroad overpass, our readers asked and voted for our reporters to answer the question, “Why is an overpass being put on Prairie Street in Elkhart instead of Main Street by the post office, where there is major congestion?” for this week’s Ask the Truth.

    It turns out that, in fact, officials have considered the option, but it has strikes against it.

    If you’d like to submit a question for us to answer next week, write it in the blue box at the bottom of the page labeled “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?” or email it to askthetruth@elkharttruth.com.

    ELKHART — Living in Elkhart, you can’t avoid trains.

    Norfolk Southern Railroad runs a heavily used line that cuts through Elkhart then heads south, parallel to U.S. 33, bisecting Goshen. By last count we got from the rail company, some 50 trains a day pass through the changing yard west of Elkhart off Old U.S. 33.

    What about an overpass in the Dunlap area?

    You didn’t ask it, but we’ll answer anyway.

    Elkhart County officials over the years have mulled the possibility of an overpass crossing the Norfolk Southern line parallel to U.S. 33 in the Dunlap area between Elkhart and Goshen. The most likely spot would be along C.R. 13, also known as Lewis Avenue.

    Lack of funds, though, has prevented such a project from moving forward.

    As is, there’s no overpass or underpass crossing the Norfolk Southern line between Indiana Avenue in Elkhart and C.R. 17 on the northern outskirts of Goshen. Thus, motorists wanting to go from one side of the rail line to the other face waits if a train is passing.

    Compounding matters, trains, at times, come to a complete standstill in the Dunlap area as they await passage of oncoming locomotives, variously blocking flow across Sunnyside Avenue, C.R. 13 or C.R. 15.

    But a rail line that cuts across Main Street? In downtown Elkhart, the heart of the city?

    That’s always been a real puzzler for me. What better way to keep people off Main Street (or annoy them) than the specter of trains and a long wait while a locomotive passes?

    But for good or ill, that’s how Elkhart evolved. And you get used to a rail line in the city center, kind of. You learn to put up with it, anyway.

    Scroll down to see the map of the area

    Still, some wonder why an overpass couldn’t be built to haul traffic over the rail lines that cut Main Street, reducing the congestion when a train passes. It turns out city officials have considered the possibility, though they discarded it in picking the Norfolk Southern crossing at Prairie Street as the location for the city’s next overpass. 

    We put the question to Mike Machlan, the city engineer. “The challenge with anything right at Main Street,” he said, “is ruining downtown.”

    As preliminary work ahead of Prairie Street overpass construction commences, here are some of Machlan’s points on the Main Street notion:

    • The gradual incline and decline of any overpass would require a lengthy structure that would closely abut the buildings just north of the railroad track, hampering access to them. It would “kill Main Street” south of Division Street.
    • An overpass structure would also likely require closure of Middlebury and Tyler streets where they meet Main Street.
    • An underpass beneath the railroad line would result in a chasm going from roughly St. Joseph Drive on the south side of the tracks to Harrison Street on the north side, similar to the depression for the Indiana Avenue underpass. The depression would closely abut some of the buildings on the north side, again hampering access.
    • Building an underpass would necessitate creation of a temporary track bypassing the site to permit work and allow continued train traffic. Creation of the temporary track would likely require demolition of some structures in the zone to make the necessary space.
    • As is, the railroad crossing slows traffic, facilitating commerce and activity in the city center. Downtown boosters are pushing to turn the city center into even more of a destination for shopping and dining, and an overpass would tend to speed traffic, potentially hampering the moves.

    Machlan noted the Benham Avenue underpass west of the downtown area serves as a relief valve for motorists wanting to bypass Main Street and the potential for trains and auto congestion. Furthermore, flashing lights along Marion and Franklin streets serve to warn Main Street motorists of trains so they can detour to the Benham Avenue underpass.

    The city last year converted Harrison Street west of Main Street from a one-way to two-way street to facilitate access to the underpass. And Machlan said there’s been on-and-off discussion about converting State and Division streets north of the crossing to two-way streets to create additional escape routes for motorists stalled by trains.

    On the flip side, an overpass at Prairie Street eliminates the frequent snarls there when trains pass and helps create a north-south arterial across Elkhart, facilitating traffic flow. Prairie Street north of Main Street will be widened from one lane in each direction to two, making it an ideal roadway for relatively quick north-south travel all the way to Bristol Street and beyond. Prairie Street becomes Johnson Street past Jackson Boulevard.

    Traffic on Main Street, by contrast, is stop-and-go through the city center. North of Beardsley Avenue, it’s a two-way street that dead-ends at Bristol Street – not quite as ideal fodder for quick north-south travel, as Machlan sees it.


    From the archives:

    Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.

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