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Last updated: Wed. Oct. 31, 2007 - 12:45 pm EDT

U.S. 24 cost cuts criticized

Replacing elevated interchanges will decrease highway's safety, some say.

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Construction of a new U.S. 24 between New Haven and Toledo – the “Fort to Port” project – was supposed to improve safety on what New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald calls a “killer highway.”

Now, say McDonald and other critics, cost-cutting changes could render Indiana’s 11 miles of new road, estimated to cost about $130 million, only marginally safer than before.

At issue are three elevated interchanges previously planned where the new U.S. 24 crosses Indiana 101, Webster Road and Ryan-Bruick roads. According to Robert Alderman, director of the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Fort Wayne District, at-grade crossings will replace the interchanges, saving as much as $80 million. The interchanges could be added later if necessary, he said.

“We’re as concerned as anyone. But, as a new road, we have no real (traffic and safety) data,” Alderman said. “This will be a limited-access highway, people won’t be backing out of their driveways into traffic, and you won’t have people trying to pass 10 trucks.”

Despite the design change, Alderman said the state is buying land needed for the interchanges now and will also build bridges over the new U.S. 24 at Webster and Ryan and Bruick roads for horse-drawn buggies and nonmotorized vehicles.

The state’s willingness to build overpasses to protect the Amish – but not motorists – rankled Elaine Roemke, who has lived along Indiana 101 near U.S. 24 on a homestead owned by her family for more than 100 years.

“(The state) made the wrong change. There needs to be interchanges,” said Roemke, who attended an INDOT presentation on the project at Woodlan High School earlier this month. “Our feelings (about the design changes) just didn’t do any good. They didn’t recognize what we were saying.”

Although replacing what is mostly a winding two-lane highway with a straighter four-lane road should improve traffic flow and safety even without the interchanges, McDonald said the improvements could also create problems, such as increased speed and use, especially by heavy trucks. The lack of overpasses could also make it more difficult for farm machinery to cross U.S. 24 safely, McDonald said.

State officials last year announced they would spend $826 million on roads, bridges and highways this year – the result of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Major Moves” program funded by the lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a private company for $3.8 billion over 75 years. The cost of the project had to be reduced to qualify for Major Moves money, County Commissioner Linda Bloom said.

Construction could start next year near the Indiana-Ohio state line, said Alderman, a former state representative. As many as 8,000 vehicles use U.S. 24 between New Haven and the state line every day – and about half are trucks, according to Dan Avery, executive director of the Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council, a transportation planning agency. On most interstates, Avery added, trucks comprise less than 30 percent of the vehicles.

The number of crashes on the highway has been fairly consistent, Avery added, ranging from 34 to 41 every year between 2002 and 2006, when 14 of the 37 accidents resulted in injury or death. The most recent fatality occurred Sept. 21, when 60-year-old Alonzo Stevens of Woodburn died when a semi struck his pickup at the U.S. 24-Indiana 101 intersection during heavy fog.

“If I’m driving to Woodburn, I won’t even use U.S. 24 (because of safety concerns),” McDonald said. “The highway is a logjam of trailers.” Ohio, meanwhile, is including some elevated interchanges in its portion of the project.

McDonald said the state may save money now, but deferring construction of the interchanges until later could cost both lives and money as inflation increases the cost of materials and construction.

McDonald said he is meeting with area legislators, hoping to convince them to fight for more transportation money. “If they can spend millions of dollars in central Indiana, they can do it here,” he said. “Allen County is getting ripped off again. Enough’s enough.”

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