Elkhart County Commissioners are all aboard a railroad overpass plan for Dunlap

IMAGE CONTRIBUTEDThe Elkhart County Commissioners back a recommendation by the county highway department for an overpass near Concord Mall. This design map shows plans for building a bridge from Mall Drive, over U.S. 33, the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks and C.R. 45, to Sunnyside Avenue. The project would cost an estimated $30 million and affect 19 properties.

GOSHEN — Concord Mall could act as the hinge for opening a new corridor over the railroad tracks along U.S. 33 in Dunlap.

The Elkhart County Commissioners favorited a plan for a long-sought new overpass following a presentation by County Engineer Kent Schumacher during Monday’s meeting.

The concept, recommended by the county highway department, calls for building a route with a bridge along Mall Drive at Mishawaka Road to Sunnyside Avenue at C.R. 13. So, along Concord Mall’s southeastern edge, the elevation would begin near Mall and Center drives, cross Yellow Creek, U.S. 33, the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks and C.R. 45 before descending onto Sunnyside Avenue. Schumacher said. A connector would also be built to U.S. 33 as well as an upgraded intersection at Sunnyside Avenue and C.R. 13.

The work could cost an estimated $30 million and affect a mix of about 14 homes and five businesses, Schumacher said.

He and the commissioners agreed the proposal provides the best value based on cost, property impact, traffic flow and an incline grade of about four percent, which Schumacher compared to the slope of C.R. 17 over the Elkhart River.

“This alternate vastly improves traffic,” Schumacher told the commissioners.

Though the project would cut a bit of the mall’s parking lot, Schumacher anticipated the project could end up benefiting the property.

“In fact, it probably has a positive effect because all that traffic’s now coming in front of the mall as opposed to further south away from that mall,” he said.

The proposal was one of five he presented — the serious contenders following a study, funded by the Michiana Area Council of Governments and led by consulting firm DLZ Corp., that started in June 2017 and culminated in 19 potential routes.

The other four top proposals included:

• A plan for an overpass on C.R. 13 that crosses U.S. 33, the railroad tracks and C.R. 45 and includes an exit connecting C.R. 13 and C.R. 45. The plan’s the least expensive at an estimated $26 million, but would affect 31 properties and comes with a steeper 6 percent grade like the Prairie Street crossing in Elkhart;

• A plan for an overpass on Mishawaka Road across U.S. 33, the railroad tracks and C.R. 45 and back down to C.R. 13. The cost would be an estimated $32 million with 17 properties affected, and Mishawaka Road traffic would have to reroute to Mall Drive or by Concord Intermediate School;

• A similar plan for an overpass on Mishawaka Road, which includes an additional road connecting C.R. 13 to the elevation at an estimated cost of $37 million with 18 properties affected;

• The most expensive plan at an estimated $46 million calls for extending Mishawaka Road to a bridge with an elevated roundabout at C.R. 45. That would affect 27 properties and have a steep incline of at least 6 percent.

The county has already secured approval for nearly $13 million in federal funds to help pay for a new railroad overpass, Schumacher said. But the highway department is working to partner with the Indiana Department of Transportation on the project.

Schumacher expects to submit an application in the next couple weeks for a grant through INDOT’s new Local Trax program ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline. The state program will disperse $125 million to communities working to build rail overpasses. If selected, INDOT would fund the design costs plus 80 percent of the construction, right-of-way and engineering costs, while Elkhart County would pay for the other 20 percent. The state would also take over management of the project.

Norfolk Southern, which operates the three-track line that runs parallel to U.S. 33 from Goshen through Dunlap and into Elkhart, would pick up at least 5 percent of the cost as well, Schumacher said.

INDOT is expected to select participating communities around late September or early October. Following the design process, construction could begin around 2022. The work could take about two years to complete, Schumacher approximated.

He’s confident in the county’s chances of winning a Trax grant. Norfolk Southern, which is part of the program’s selection committee, has ranked the crossings at C.R. 13 and Sunnyside Avenue among the top 100 crossings the company wants to close, Schumacher said.

“They’re very interested in both of these,” he said.

The commissioners voted to recommend INDOT follow the Mall Drive overpass plan if the agency selects Elkhart County for the Trax grant.

“I’d have to win another election to be there for the ribbon-cutting,” Commissioner Mike Yoder joked about the project timeline. “For over a decade, I’ve wanted to see this happen.”

The plans discussed at the meeting were years in the making as the county sought to alleviate traffic congestion at railroad crossings along U.S. 33 where vehicles are stopped by frequent train traffic.

An average of about 100 trains use the rail line each day. The crossings at C.R. 13 and Sunnyside Avenue are used by more than 5,000 vehicles a day, Schumacher said.

Yoder said the railroad crossing congestion is one of the top issues residents have complained to him about since he was first elected commissioner, noting he has a stack of letters pushing for a new overpass.

OTHER BUSINESS

The commissioners also approved several appropriations during Monday’s meeting.

The votes included approving Planning and Development Director Chris Godlewski’s request for $428,850 from the Middlebury East, Western Gateway, South Benton, North Baugo and Millersburg II tax increment finance funds to make bi-annual debt payments.

Godlewski also received $30,960 in funds from the C.R. 6 and C.R. 17 Northeast TIF for a final payment on the Beck Drive sewer line project, as well as $50,000 for fiber optic lines in the district. A similar request by Transportation Manager Jeff Taylor for $150,000 from the EDIT fund was approved to install fiber optic lines in the Bristol area that isn’t in the TIF district.

The commissioners also approved $560,000 in requests by Taylor for bridge, road and culvert work, as well as $265 to balance a small deficit in a project.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or at 574-533-2151, ext. 316. Follow Aimee on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

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