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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
The city wants to widen State Boulevard from Wells Street to the St. Joseph River.

State-widening foes fear urban highway

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
A mirror at West State Boulevard and Westbrook Drive allows drivers turning off Westbrook to see around a curve on State.
The Journal Gazette

– An $11 million upgrade to State Boulevard between Wells Street and the St. Joseph River was controversial when it was proposed four years ago.

Today, with a public hearing expected within a month or two and the plans getting closer to being finalized, it remains a subject of debate.

City Councilman John Shoaff, D-at large, has mentioned the project repeatedly at public meetings, contending the city wants to make State Boulevard a throughway for heavy truck traffic and that city officials are not listening to neighborhood concerns.

City officials say the opposite is true: There are no plans to make State Boulevard a truck route. Plans call for numerous traffic-calming measures, and city officials say they have worked closely with many neighbors to make the best plan possible.

“State is never going to be a truck route,” said Bob Kennedy, the city’s director of public works. “We’re not designing it for trucks, and we would never do that.”

But Shoaff and Brookview Neighborhood Association President Michelle Briggs Wedaman say the 2030 Transportation Plan seems to indicate otherwise. The plan is a long-term regional planning document created by the Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council. The group coordinates transportation projects so they make sense on a regional basis.

Shoaff said the plan specifically calls for making State Boulevard a major east-west artery to detour truck traffic off congested Coliseum Boulevard.

City officials said they were unaware that provision was in the plan, that it is the opposite of city policy, and even if the provision does exist, it is the city, not NIRCC, that decides which projects to build and how to build them.

NIRCC Executive Director Dan Avery said such a provision related to State is not in the 2030 plan and that Shoaff is misinterpreting what is there.

Project details

The project proposed by the city calls for two travel lanes in each direction and a softer curve near Eastbrook and Westbrook drives to improve safety. The new alignment – which would require about $3.2 million in property acquisitions – would provide more capacity than the 20,500 vehicles that travel it daily.

Opponents say those four lanes – and a center turn lane in spots – with a straighter, elevated route to accommodate a raised bridge over Spy Run Creek, will make the road, “another wide, fast urban highway.”

“This is not what the neighborhood wants; it’s not what these neighborhoods want,” Briggs Wedaman said, pointing to a list of 15 other neighborhoods that have signed documents opposing the project.

But city officials contend the project is, in fact, what neighbors want, because they have had at least 30 meetings on the project, including eight meetings with Brookview.

The current plan includes important changes suggested by neighbors, Kennedy said.

“Laying engineering plans on a table and having residents say which streets they want to connect is not a meaningful exploration of alternatives,” Briggs Wedaman said, who adds that the city has talked to neighbors but not in a meaningful way.

“Every time you ask a question, more questions emerge,” she said.

John Meinzen, vice president of the Spy Run Neighborhood Association, said he now wishes he had not signed the letter opposing it. The first phase of the project, from the St. Joseph River to Clinton Street, runs through his neighborhood.

“I think they’re trying to meet the wishes of the people,” Meinzen said of the city process.

A bridge of trouble?

The alignment causing much of the debate is caused by the bridge, officials said. The structure is in need of replacement – it is the lowest-rated bridge in the county, at 28 of 100.

But because of the flooding in the area, federal guidelines require it be built 7 feet higher than the current bridge. That requires changing the route the road takes, moving it south and straightening the curves.

“It can’t stay where it is,” Kennedy said. “It would destroy the homes to the north. This way, the homes we have to take are the ones already targeted for voluntary flood buyouts, plus those on the south side of State. But by doing that, we protect dozens and dozens of homes to the north.”

Officials say they don’t want the road to be a highway, so they’re designing it to slow traffic: There will be streetlights and trees right at the curb, and a planted median. The trees and low overhead signals will also discourage trucks.

Briggs Wedaman said neighbors just want a real look at what else might be possible.

“We’re not saying do nothing,” she said. “We’re saying there are other alternatives and the city has refused to explore those in a meaningful way.”