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.
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Planning the bypass
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.
Without any consultants or financial assistance, Smith’s department drew up their own plans last winter. By February, county highway engineer Danny Hollander announced in-house crews would do almost all the work to keep costs within a $200,000 budget.
Construction that began in April concluded last weekend when the road was reopened to traffic. Two sharp curves were significantly softened to allow the speed limit to be raised from 20 to 40 mph through the winding stretch.
For the past 14 years, Diana Graman has lived on the city’s far west side. Every weekday, she uses the backway to get to and from her job as an instructional coach at St. Bartholomew Catholic School on the city’s north side.
On most days, Graman leaves home by 6:40 a.m. to be at work by 7 a.m. Under that schedule, the County Road 325W/Lowell Road route saves her about five minutes in travel time compared to others that take Jonathan Moore Pike across the Robert N. Stewart Bridge into downtown Columbus, Graman said.
But as traffic gets heavier with each passing minute along State Road 46 during the 7 o’clock hour, delays get progressively longer until the morning traffic rush is over, Graman said.
“I never take 46 unless Lowell Road is closed,” Graman said.
When the tardy bell at St. Bartholomew rings at 7:45 a.m., it’s usually Graman who is outside as parents drop off late arrivals, she said.
“A lot of our students live in the Tipton Lakes area and even further out west,” Graman said. “Whenever the children arrive late, we often hear about a train or traffic that took them by surprise.”
Although some school administrators may be understanding, businessman and Columbus City Council member Tom Dell said employees don’t expect their bosses to be as forgiving.
“Workers need to be able to get to their jobs, and employers need to know they can get there on time,” said Jason Hester, president of the Greater Columbus Economic Development Corp.
For that reason, a growing number of companies now urge their employees to use the 325W/Lowell Road route to ensure prompt arrival, Dell said.
As the locomotives get longer, faster and heavier, the current wait time at the State Road 46 crossing of about 13 minutes for eastbound traffic will expand to about 20 minutes for each train. That’s if no action is taken to alleviate the situation, said consultants from the engineering firm American Structurepoint Inc., Indianapolis.
While the biggest impact from increased train traffic is at least a year away, two additional daily trains will start making runs through Columbus in the next 10 days.
It’s unclear what the immediate impact will be since the railroad has declined to divulge to city officials what time the additional trains will be coming through, Lienhoop said.
But city and county officials are confident that more trains will drive more vehicular traffic to the 325W/Lowell Road route.
The top concern in local government right now is what to do late next year when as many as 22 trains a day start traveling through compared to eight now.
If $15 million can be raised locally by the end of next month, the state will match that amount to finance a $30 million overpass at the the State Road 46/State Road 11 crossing.
Lienhoop said he’s hopeful that overpass construction can begin in late 2019 and conclude about a year later.
During overpass construction, the increased traffic will make the 325W/Lowell Road route look like a 24-foot wide highway, Hollander said.
But the railroad isn’t the only factor contributing to the expected congestion.
An additional 300 homes will be going up off Lowell Road, north of Interstate 65. About 40 homes are expected to be built next year in the Abbey Place subdivision, with 50 homes added each year until 2023, according to a construction timeline.
Although concerns about increased traffic from the new subdivision were expressed to the Columbus City Council, Abbey Place was approved by a 4-3 vote in June.
“When we interview employers, the number-one concern we hear is that we need more available housing,” Hester said. “We need to move forward, and be thinking about where investments need to be made.”
Other challenges expected during the next decade include several million dollars that will be needed to upgrade the aging Lowell Bridge, as well as extend Lowell Road improvements east to Old Indianapolis Road.
The traffic challenges have resulted in a renewed spirit of cooperation and respect between city and county officials as they work together to tackle mutual problems.
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that the county stepped up to minimize the dangerous concerns along Lowell Road,” Dell said.
Lienhoop commended Bartholomew County government for its willingness to step up and do its part since the issue emerged late last year.
“The improvements they’ve made (on Lowell Road) is as much as I think they could do,’ the mayor said. “But it’s exactly what we need.”
As an immediate response, the city plans to install a number of cameras to give emergency responders advanced warning of when a long train is approaching, said Dave Hayward, executive director of public works and city engineer.
In addition, a Purdue University class is working to develop a smart phone ap that will provide the same information to motorists, Hayward said.
While it might be comforting to think that local motorists will be inconvenienced only until a State Road 46/11 overpass is completed, Bartholomew County Councilman Jorge Morales warned this week that the $30 million project may only serve as a Band-Aid.
Commuters who currently use other crossings across the train tracks will start using the overpass when it’s completed, increasing traffic on both Jonathan Moore Pike and the 325W/Lowell Road alternative route, Morales said.
Other long-term challenges ahead include:
- A multi-million dollar renovation of the almost 60-year-old Lowell Bridge. While no timetable has been set, the county has announced it will seek federal funds to finance the project.
- A two-phase, $5.9 million upgrade of Lowell Road that will extend east to Indianapolis Road. Federal funds for the first phase are expected to become available in 2022.