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Posted on Tue. Apr. 15, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Latest delay frustrates people on both sides of State Boulevard debate

City can't buy homes until environmental study is done

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The latest delay in the planned $11 million project to widen and straighten a portion of West State Boulevard has managed to frustrate not only residents anxious to sell their walking-dead homes but also those who still hope to derail a project they insist will irreparably harm their historic neighborhood.

“We're still working through the environmental impact study, and it's taking longer than estimated. They've been asking us for more information, and we have to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts,” city traffic engineer Shan Gunawardena said, referring to the federally mandated review that as recently as late 2012 was expected to be ready for a public hearing a year ago but is still not complete.

All of which means construction, which had been expected to begin in 2015, may be delayed until the following year.

“This is so much more than frustrating. It's like my life is on hold,” said Peggy Roy, who owns a house in the 2200 block of Eastbrook Drive scheduled for demolition when reconstruction of State between Cass Street and Spy Run Avenue finally begins. She moved out of the house in 2006, when the city first said it wanted to buy the property, but the delays have made it increasingly difficult to maintain the property and find tenants, she said. Repairing flood damage last June cost $15,000, she said – money she would rather not have spent on a home slated for demolition and may never recover. About 11 other homes are supposed to meet a similar fate.

Roy's angst is shared by one of the project's chief critics, Brookview Neighborhood resident Michelle Briggs Wedaman.

“This (delay) is not a victory for (opponents),” she said. “A delay was never our intention. We wanted to explore other options. But if this is going to happen, they should hurry up.” The lingering state of limbo, she said, has not been conducive to the maintenance of some homes and common areas in the neighborhood, which was designed by noted landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff in 1917.

“There have been a lot of objections to the project, so there's been a lot of back and forth between the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Indiana Department of Transportation and the city. There have been a lot of negotiations, trying to tweak the document,” explained Jason Kaiser, consultant services manager for InDOT. Those objections were telegraphed last year when the Brookview-Irvington Park Historic District made Indiana Landmarks' “10 most endangered” lists.

City Utilities spokesman Frank Suarez noted that the State project is hardly the first to face delays, and he's absolutely right. The extension of Maplecrest Road from Lake Avenue south to Indiana 930 was first proposed in the late 1960s, for example, but wasn't completed until 2012.

But that project did not affect a well-established historic neighborhood. And being on a long-range transportation plan is not the same as being given schedules that prove overly optimistic.

That's not necessarily anybody's fault. Government works at its own pace, under rules that do not always seem logical in the real world (an abandoned but sturdy concrete railroad bridge over State was removed several years ago but will now be replaced with a new bridge as part of the city's Pufferbelly Trail. That was necessary, Gunawardena said, because federal guidelines require pedestrian paths to be at least 17 feet above the street). But it must also be said that opponents' concerns, however justified, seem to have contributed to the very delay Briggs Wedaman finds frustrating.

Although City Councilman John Shoaff, D-at large, and others have expressed fears that a wider, straighter State will be used as a truck route, that seems unlikely. Shoaff nevertheless said the latest delay is “significant” and gives opponents more time to make their case.

“This (plan) is a 40-year-old idea that's been out of date for a long time. Priorities have changed, and we should keep neighborhoods as livable as possible,” he said.

Briggs Wedaman, for example, suggests keeping State two-lane with a middle turn lane may address legitimate safety concerns without dramatically changing the street's character.

City officials give no indication the project itself is in jeopardy, though, or that they plan any major changes to its design. And the city's drawings of how the improved street will look are impressive.

But at this point, this much should be clear: Because the city can't buy the targeted homes until the environmental study is done, whatever finally happens should happen as quickly as possible – for everybody's sake.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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