The turnout was slim, and comments were few, during a public hearing held Tuesday evening for a proposed U.S. 224 highway improvement project in Decatur.
With only two dozen area residents in attendance, officials from the Indiana Department of Transportation detailed the construction plans for an estimated $3.5 million project that would elevate the state highway by as much as seven feet from the St. Marys River to just east of the U.S. 224 intersection with Jackson Street.
Construction would begin in 2015.
The highway project has been on the books at INDOT for some 13 years, and has taken on many design variations during that time. But it was severe flooding experienced in Decatur in 2003 — which forced the closure of the state thoroughfare and effectively cut the city in half — that prompted state transportation officials to take a closer look at highway improvements on the city's east side.
INDOT held hearings in 2008 for a proposal to raise the roadway, but that plan was met by opposition from local residents and business owners who feared that elevating U.S. 224 would only lead to more serious flooding in other parts of the city.
State officials then went back to the drawing board and, using more current data gleaned in the aftermath of the 2003 flood, subsequently developed a construction plan that INDOT engineers said would have no detrimental affect on floodwaters in the city.
The construction proposal calls elevating U.S. 224 some 5-7 feet in the area between Jackson Street and East Monroe Extended, and a lesser build-up in the road surface from Limberlost Trail west to the St. Marys River bridge — a total project length of .54-miles.
As proposed, U.S. 224 would feature two 12-foot driving lanes, as it is currently configured. The intersection of U.S. 224 and Jackson Street and Adams Drive (the entrance to Bellmont High School) would be realigned, and left- and right-turn lanes would be added at the intersection. Curbs, gutters and pedestrian handrails would be installed along the highway and additional storm sewers and drainage devices would be included to alleviate flooding, according to INDOT plans.
INDOT officials said that, following the September 23 deadline for public comment on the project, the next phase of the project would be land acquisition. The state needs to obtain 1.9 acres of real estate, consisting of 19 parcels, to complete the project. One INDOT spokesman said the "vast majority" of acquisitions would be in the form of a temporary grant, in which the land would revert back to the original owners after the project is complete.
Property appraisals and negotiations with affected landowners could begin later this year, said INDOT officials.
Decatur Mayor John Schultz spoke briefly in support of the project, calling it a necessary effort to ensure the safety of local residents.
"Currently, during times of heavy flooding, the city is cut in half" when U.S. 224 is closed, said Schultz. "It becomes difficult for people to travel safely, and our safety forces — fire, police, ambulance service — are severely restricted.
"Since it has been determined that this project will not be pushing water off on anyone else, I would like to voice my support for this project to proceed," the mayor said.
Additional public comment on the proposed U.S. 224 project will be accepted by the Indiana Department of Transportation until September 23. Written comments may be sent by mail to the INDOT Fort Wayne District Office, 5333 Hatfield Road, Fort Wayne, or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org . For additional information on the project, visit the INDOT website at: www.indot.in.gov  and go to the "public involvement" page.