After 13 years of discussion, planning and "a level of analysis that is not normally done" on similar highway projects, Indiana Department of Transportation officials are once again proposing that U.S. 224 in Decatur be elevated between Bellmont High School and the St. Marys River.
The goal of the project, INDOT Capital Programs Director John Leckie told a crowd of some 40 local residents on Wednesday night, is to allow traffic to move without interruption along one of the city's major transportation arteries even during severe flooding events.
The project area as identified by INDOT officials would run from the Macklin Bridge to east of Jackson Street, near Bellmont High School. The area targeted by the proposed project frequently floods during heavy rain events, forcing traffic detours and essentially cutting the city in half.
Al DeLaunay, a representative of the URS Corp. consulting firm hired by the state to map out the project, said the project to elevate U.S. 224 out of the flood plain "has been active, but on life support" since 1998.
The first serious discussions about raising U.S. 224 came in September of 2008, when INDOT held a meeting in Decatur to gauge public interest in the project.
But with the devastating flood of 2003 still fresh in the minds of many Decatur residents, many in attendance at that 2008 event voiced concerns and fears that raising the highway would lead to increased flooding for local homeowners and businesses.
"One of the messages we got from the public during that 2008 meeting was that we needed to coordinate better with local officials and to take a closer look at the overall scope of the project," said DeLaunay. "So we did that."
He said engineers subsequently pored over data furnished by the city of Decatur, the Maumee River Basin Commission, the Indiana Division of Water and the state Department of Homeland Security to assure that the highway elevation project would not contribute to or create additional flooding problems in the target area.
DeLaunay said it was ultimately determined that, with the exception of so-called "100-year flood events" — similar to the 2003 flood — the highway project would have no negative effect on flood levels. Even during those rare 100-year events, he said, the effect of the project on flood levels would be nearly imperceptible.
Original plans had called for U.S. 224 to be elevated by five feet throughout the .54-mile length of the project. But INDOT officials on Wednesday said the revised proposal calls for a five-foot elevation in the area between Jackson Street and East Monroe Extended, but only a 1.5-foot raise in the road surface from Limberlost Trail west to the St. Marys River bridge.
As proposed, U.S. 224 would feature two 12-foot driving lanes, as it is currently configured. Left- and right-turn lanes would be added at Jackson Street and Adams Drive (the entrance to Bellmont High School). Curbs and gutters would be added and additional storm sewers and drainage devices would be included to alleviate flooding.
The highway would remain open to local businesses throughout the construction, officials said. An official state detour would direct traffic to State Route 101, but local residents could use Jackson Street to circumvent the construction.
Additional elements of the project, including right-of-way and property acquisition, will be discussed at an August 30 public hearing.
INDOT project manager Susan Doell said the goal of Wednesday night's public information meeting was primarily "to convince people that this project will not add to flooding problems."