U.S. 31 has been Kokomo’s commercial artery for half a century, going from a rural highway to a billboard-strewn retail center.
To the east, a new bypass is nearing completion, a road that will either supplant or compliment the old 31, depending on key decisions facing local officials.
One of the biggest decisions will be made in concert with the Indiana Department of Transportation, where state officials are hoping to “relinquish” the old 31, giving it to the city of Kokomo in perpetuity.
In dollar terms, it could be the biggest single decision facing the city, dwarfing downtown redevelopment and beautification issues.
The city could do many things with the corridor, from installing wider, grassy medians to putting in roundabouts. It could turn the corridor into an urban boulevard, and require most semi-trucks to use the new bypass. The city could redesign the landscape, and make efforts to reduce the number of tall highway signs along the old 31.
The city – or INDOT – could narrow the lanes on the four-lane road, creating space for alternative transportation.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said.
Right now, Goodnight said the city has “ideas” for the corridor, but he’s not willing to share.
“Right now, it’s a state highway, so I’m not sure it matters,” he says, brushing off queries on specifics.
Goodnight did say he thinks there’s consensus the road has too many stoplights, isn’t particularly safe (especially for pedestrians and two-wheeled traffic), can be congested during peak hours, and isn’t well maintained.
It’s that last point that’s a special concern, due to INDOT’s impending grand opening of the new bypass. When opened this winter, the new road will be named U.S. 31, and the old 31 will become U.S. 931.
“I’ve communicated with INDOT at different levels, and they’ve been very consistent in saying that once the new 31 opens, the current 31 will not be a priority. They’ve been clear about that,” Goodnight said.
The amount of financial support INDOT is willing to provide will be a key point, if and when the city and INDOT begin formal relinquishment negotiations.
The last time the two sides met, in 2005, they couldn’t reach an agreement, according to Larry Ives, director of the Kokomo-Howard County Governmental Coordinating Council.
An impartial observer might have been tempted to say the city was asking for too much back then – a complete reconstruction of U.S. 31, plus enough money in a trust fund to pay for maintenance over the next 20 to 30 years.
“INDOT will usually pay for either a reconstruction, or for maintenance going forward, but not both,” INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said.
But that was before INDOT gave the city of Carmel $90 million in 2007, in return for Carmel taking over the U.S. 431 (Keystone Avenue) corridor.
The Keystone corridor in Carmel, directly linked to U.S. 31, eventually cost $108 million to construct. Carmel removed six stoplights, and turned a road INDOT rated an F for traffic into a B+.
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took considerable heat over the deal at the time, but Brainard says the project was cost effective for both the city and the state.
Brainard said INDOT was going to reconstruct Keystone anyway, but the original plan was to add travel lanes and create diamond interchanges, with stoplights at the top of each ramp.
Any traffic flow improvements from that design would have been erased in 10 years, Brainard said. When Daniels came down in favor of the more expensive plan put forward by Carmel’s engineers, traffic flow was dramatically improved, he said.
Because everything can be sent down the Keystone corridor, INDOT can now completely shut down the U.S. 31/Meridian Street corridor next year to complete the southern leg of the South Bend-to-Indianapolis via Kokomo project.
Brainard said estimates indicate the accelerated timetable will save $50 million.
“Basically the Keystone project paid for itself,” he said.
That’s also why INDOT, without saying as much, is treating the Carmel project as an outlier, rather than a precedent.
Kokomo could receive a payment in lieu of an INDOT-engineered reconstruction, but all indications are it won’t be anywhere close to the $18 million per mile given to Carmel.
“Every relinquishment is different, and they involve a lot of different factors,” was how Wingfield put it when asked if Carmel received a special deal. He also referenced the ability to send traffic down Keystone while the Meridian corridor is closed.
Lafayette’s 2012 acceptance of part of U.S. 52 might be a better example of what INDOT might consider. At 9.36 lane miles, it was close to the size of the Keystone relinquishment, but Lafayette accepted a payment of $22.9 million, in lieu of a $25-million reconstruction project.
“It’s a matter of treating each other with respect, and not getting the world, but just getting what’s fair for everybody,” said Sallie Fahey, executive director of the Area Plan Commission of Tippecanoe County.
What’s fair, Fahey said, is for INDOT to ensure the city will be compensated for 15 to 20 years of maintenance for taking over the road.
“We just want to make sure whatever facilities we take over would be in good repair, and would last for a number of years,” she said.
The definition of “good repair” is also part of the negotiation, however.
Kokomo officials may point to a pre-2005 INDOT study which recommended reconstruction for U.S. 31, but INDOT maintains that in a 2006 inspection, “pavement design engineers found the 4.5 inches of asphalt over 9 inches of concrete pavement to be in good condition.”
Drivers may wonder about the obviously crumbling concrete on the underside of the bridges over Kokomo Creek, but a November 2012 INDOT inspection gave a 6 rating to the deck, superstructure and substructure of the southbound bridge. For the northbound bridge, the superstructure was rated a 7 while the deck and substructure were rated a 6.
The scale is from 0 to 9, with anything 4 or below rated deficient.
The fact bridges are part of the equation could be a problem for county officials, who are usually responsible for taking care of bridges over bodies of water — rivers, creeks, reservoirs, drainage ditches and culverts.
Sometimes INDOT signs separate agreements with a county regarding relinquished bridges. In other cases, a city or town is responsible for coordinating maintenance or inspection agreements with the county, Wingfield explained.
Whatever happens next, INDOT is trying hard to relinquish roadways and has been for some time. Fahey said the state is trying to relinquish every stretch of state road that travels through an urban area, even if it means disconnecting state routes through cities.
Kokomo will have to think hard about what comes next, and Brainard said holding public meetings on the Keystone project was instrumental in building goodwill.
INDOT may be the key to Kokomo getting the kind of roadway it wants, but the desires of local businesses – long accustomed to each having their own curb cuts connecting to the roadway – will have to be considered.
“One word – delicately” is how Goodnight indicated he’ll approach that problem.
With 14 stoplights from county line to county line, and no good way for anyone not in a vehicle to cross it, the soon-to-be “old” 31 is a major conversation waiting to happen.
“Most people would like to see substantial improvements,” Goodnight said.
Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org