For decades, Bartholomew County natives called it the backway. It was an alternate route with hairpin turns from the west side of Columbus to downtown or the northern part of the city, but without stoplights, railroad crossings or traffic congestion to fight.
Its official name is County Road 325W and it starts behind Westhill Shopping Center off State Road 46 West, taking commuters north on Lowell Road to the Lowell Bridge fishing site, forming a shortcut to National Road (U.S. 31).
Using the backway as he returned one night from an out-of-town conference, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop remarked, “Even at 9:30 p.m., you’re no longer out in the country as you thought you were. You are engaged in city traffic.”
The 325W/Lowell Road alternative, which many commuters learned about through word-of-mouth whispers, has become a vital bypass linking the two largest areas of growth in Bartholomew County: the city’s far west side and the Taylorsville-Edinburgh area. And it’s safer, with sharp turns removed this summer to make the backway a better way to travel.
County officials announced plans in February 2014 to renovate 325W. Although progress was delayed by unexpected snags involving utility relocation, crews completed a $225,000 upgrade in May 2015.
About a year later, CSX Transportation announced plans to invest up to $100 million to make improvements to track owned by the Louisville & Indiana Railroad. The new rail would result in longer, heavier and a greater number of freight trains coming through Columbus each day. By October of last year, city and county officials were told to expect 22 daily trains compared to the current eight, beginning in late 2018.
Since the mid-19th century, federal law has allowed railroads to “basically do whatever they want to do,” Lienhoop said.
So instead of resistance, city and county officials began working together to develop ways to alleviate traffic congestion.
“We recognized that Lowell Road is one of several mitigating factors we would need to pursue to alleviate the effects of the train traffic,” the mayor said.
In December, Bartholomew County Highway Superintendent Dwight Smith announced that widening and improving a curvy section of Lowell Road south of Interstate 65 would become his department’s top priority in 2017.
For more on this story, see Saturday’s Republic.