By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — Retired pastor Robert Lee hopes the new U.S. 31 bypass will be more of a conveyance than a hindrance to “those it passes by.”
And Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight wanted the onlookers assembled for Tuesday’s grand opening of the new road to consider the “challenges” posed by the stretch of highway.
“We need to make sure we develop it properly … to make it an asset not just for Howard County, but for the entire state,” Goodnight said, saying that the Ind. 931 corridor through Kokomo needs to be protected.
“We need to make sure anything we do to develop this road doesn’t detract from the investments made by our businesses there,” he said.
From the Kokomo High School orchestra to Gov. Mike Pence and various state, federal and local officials cutting a ribbon and leading a caravan up the new road, Tuesday’s grand opening was the culmination of more than a decade of planning and five years of actual construction.
The $155 million road, which Pence said came in more than 40 percent under pre-construction estimates, also was finished two years early, after former Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana Department of Transportation moved the Kokomo corridor up the priority list.
“This road is not a bypass,” Pence said. “This road is a freeway of opportunity for Kokomo and all of north central Indiana.”
Goodnight and Lee weren’t the only attendees of the grand opening with mixed feelings about the road, which will allow traffic to circumvent 15 stoplights and about 130 “access points” along the 931 corridor.
A moratorium on new zoning along 31, and finally a city annexation of several of the interchanges, has prevented commercial and retail development along the new corridor. City officials have made it clear they want to prevent an exodus of existing businesses to the new road.
But at the birth of the project in the late 1990s, the biggest concern was whether the road should even be built, or if it was going to be built, whether it should follow the path of the existing bypass.
“We thought it was going to be the toughest [part of the U.S. 31 project] to do,” said an amused John Leatherman, head of the U.S. 31 Coalition, the chief lobbying group for the South Bend-to-Indianapolis corridor.
Now the focus turns to finishing a bypass in northern Marshall and southern St. Joseph counties (due for completion a year from now), and interchanges in Westfield and along the Meridian Street corridor in Hamilton County (due for completion at the end of 2015).
“The goal of this thing is to be able to go from South Bend to Indianapolis and just set your cruise control, and never even hit the brake,” Leatherman said.
If there has been one standard criticism of the drive through Kokomo on 931, it would be the stoplights. Kokomo is “Stoplight City.” South Bend-area state legislators used to routinely attempt to pass bills to reduce the number of stoplights or to otherwise force a speed-up of traffic flow through the corridor.
Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., said he was impressed with the way Kokomo came together as a community in the wake of the Nov. 17 tornadoes, and said he loves spending time here.
“But sometimes, I just want to go to South Bend,” Rokita said, getting a laugh. “It was getting hard there for a while.”
Next, Leatherman said, updates to rural stretches of U.S. 31 in Tipton, Miami and Fulton counties can be examined.
Rural stoplights like the ones at Ind. 218 in Miami County and Division Road in Tipton County will likely all find themselves in the crosshairs of feasibility studies in upcoming years.
And the coalition, Leatherman said, will be counting on INDOT and Pence’s administration to come through with funding for the dream of a cruise control-ready U.S. 31.
“No pressure,” a wry Pence said, in response.