A curvy county road regularly used by commuters to avoid train-crossing bottlenecks is going to be easier to navigate by the end of summer.

Preliminary work is underway to improve large sections of Lowell Road, between Jonathan Moore Pike on Columbus’ west side and U.S. 31.

The project tops the county highway department’s priority list, Highway Superintendent Dwight Smith said.

Traffic on already-congested Jonathan Moore Pike is expected to increase significantly next year when twice the number of freight trains begin crossing the Jonathan Moore Pike/State Road 11 intersection, Bartholomew County commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said.

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But in this case, high priority does not mean high cost, Smith said.

About $200,000 has been set aside from regular highway funds for the project.

“Except for a few poles, the utilities are staying where they are at,” the highway superintendent said. “It won’t be a super highway.”

First up for improvement will be a two-mile section of road coming from the west, where two 90-degree turns are located, county highway engineer Danny Hollander said.

Now rated for 20 mph, the two turns will be softened so that cars will be able to safely navigate them at 40 mph, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said.

In addition, the pavement will be widened an additional four to five feet to allow two 12-foot lanes, Hollander said.

“It’s not going to look much different, other than the curves” Hollander said. “But it should be safer.”

Currently, the county is hauling in dirt provided free-of-charge from the Bartholomew County Landfill to use as fill, Hollander said. If weather conditions allow the earth to settle quickly, construction could get underway late this month, he said.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, improvements should be completed by September, the county highway engineer said.

In the spring of 2015, similar improvements were completed along County Road 325W as part of a $225,000 project.

Traffic volume

According to a recent traffic study cited by Hollander, about 4,600 vehicles a day currently travel Lowell Road in the construction zone between County Road 250W and 325W.That number will likely go up considerably late next year due to the increased train traffic, Hollander said.

Even more traffic can be expected if an Arbor Homes request for a subdivision along Lowell Road results in the construction of 300 more homes. The Arbor Homes request will be considered by the Columbus City Council next month.

Besides the anticipated train traffic next year, another reason for high interest in the Lowell Road project is that two of the fastest growing areas of Bartholomew County are the far west wide and the Edinburgh-Taylorsville area, Breeden Inc. President Mark Pratt said last month.

Lowell Road connects the two areas.

Rather than dealing with the traffic volume of Interstate 65 and U.S. 31, Lowell Road is a faster route for Pamela Clemenz of Taylorsville, who works at the BP gas station on Jonathan Moore Pike, just west of I-65.

Libby Warner, who is Clemenz’ mother and manages the BP convenience store, has experienced frustration herself in traffic congestion, especially when she’s held up by a train.

Warner said she sometimes has to wait in line on State Road 11 in Garden City more than 20 minutes when a train comes through near the junction of State Road 46, she said.

Using Lowell Road and County Road 325W is faster with less traffic than other alternatives, said Eureka Curry, an Alabama native who’s husband is stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh.

“But there are a lot of sharp curves on Lowell,” Curry said.

For now, anyhow.

Considering the road volume, county officials will try to leave it open as much as possible during the construction period, Hollander said.

“When we get to the point when we have to close it down, it will only be between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” Hollander said. “We’ll try to keep it open for morning rush hours and evenings.”

Although the city has a strong interest in having the work completed, this year’s improvements along Lowell Road is entirely a county-financed project.

Because of the urgency, all labor will be carried out by county highway crews instead of a private contractor, the highway engineer said.

In addition, they will be working from plans developed in-house, rather than from an outside firm, Hollander said.

Smith described the Lowell Road straightening and widening as a do-it-yourself project.

Future improvements

This year’s project is only meant to provide a temporary fix for increased congestion, but the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is looking at the long-term future of Lowell Road.The organization will be considering two much larger projects that include redesigning the entire passage from Interstate 65 to U.S. 31 _ and the section from I-65 to County Road 325W.

Among the improvements CAMPO will be considering:

Redesigning the intersection of Lowell Road and U.S. 31

The possibility of an additional turn late at that intersection.

A review of two bridges: one over I-65 and the other over the Driftwood River.

But since CAMPO needs federal funds for the project, it will take at least seven years for all planned improvements along Lowell Road to get underway, Hollander said.

“It took about ten years to get the work done on Taylor Road,” Hollander said. “That’s just how federal projects work.”

Project timeline

Bartholomew County Highway Department workers are hauling in fill for the Lowell Road straightening and widening project.

Work on the road itself, which will be done by the highway department, could begin by the end of April, weather permitting.

The anticipated project-completion date is September.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.