Columbus motorists could have an overpass over the State Road 46 and State Road 11 intersection within five years, bypassing daily traffic backups caused by a railroad crossing there.
Mayor Kristen Brown has met with Indiana Department of Transportation and Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. officials twice in the past month to talk about short- and long-term solutions to the traffic tie-ups.
The problem: Trains travel through the intersections multiple times per day and sometimes stop, blocking motorists between the west side and the rest of Columbus.
After the seventh traffic backup in a month caused by malfunctioning crossing arms, the mayor talked Wednesday about the feasibility of an overpass at the intersection with INDOT and the railroad. Decisions about an overpass or any other improvements to State Road 46 would be made by INDOT, the mayor said.
The state agency wants to look at any and all solutions — including an overpass — to alleviate the traffic congestion, said Tony McClellan, deputy commissioner for INDOT’s Seymour district.
An overpass is the only real solution for backups caused by the railroad crossing because it would separate the grade of the railroad and the highway, said Michael Stolzman, railroad president.
Those backups occur at least three times during the day when trains run through the city daily at that crossing. Another train runs late at night three times a week.
Brown said the city has worked with the railroad to ensure trains aren’t scheduled during peak commuter hours.
The daily trains currently are scheduled to run about 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and after 9 p.m. But that doesn’t mean the trains are guaranteed to run at those times, and sometimes they come through during peak traffic times, the mayor said.
Brown said when that happens it creates backups that can stretch up to two miles and take an hour to clear.
Brandon Back, who works at DJ Cleaners on the west side of the city and drives east toward downtown in the evening, has been caught in backups stretching back to the McDonald’s near Carr Hill Road, one mile from the intersection.
Back said the congestion is bad and has gotten worse as the trains have become longer, adding to the time it takes to get through the crossing.
Katie Everett hasn’t been stopped by the train, but she said traffic is congested enough without it.
Everett works at Claudia’s Flora Bunda on the west side and at Family Video on the north side and said she gets stuck in traffic “all the time.”
She said traffic is particularly bad during rush hour.
Everett said an overpass likely would help alleviate some of that.
Sean Kerns, who works at the Walmart on the west side but lives on the east side, said an overpass would save him a lot of time during his daily commute. When he works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., he almost always gets cut off by the train, he said. That can extend his drive home by up to 45 minutes, he said.
Sometimes, Brown said, the backups are so bad that the Columbus Police Department has to send officers to help clear the area, which is a drain of public-safety manpower.
Even when trains pass through at scheduled times, Brown said, the railroad crossing still can create problems.
The railroad cuts the city in two, she said. And when a train comes through, it cuts off efficient access to the west side of town.
Ambulances, backup fire trucks and police vehicles can’t take the quickest route to deal with emergencies, and transportation into and out of the bus depot is cut off, she said.
The problem will only get worse if the railroad goes through with its plan to increase traffic to up to 17 trains daily, Brown said.
Train traffic increase
The Jeffersonville-based Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. has sent a request to the federal government for approval of a plan to partner with CSX Transportation of Jacksonville, Florida, to improve tracks to allow for the other railroad company’s faster and heavier trains. The plan also would allow Louisville & Indiana’s own trains to travel faster, cutting down the amount of time it takes for trains to get through intersections.
The request must be approved by the Surface Transportation Board, and Stolzman said the company can’t begin upgrading the tracks until it receives that approval, which won’t happen until later this year at the earliest.
Even after that point, Stolzman said, train traffic won’t increase immediately because the upgrades have to be completed before more trains can run on the tracks.
“Physically, we can’t do it,” he said. “The rail won’t sustain it.”
That means the increase in rail traffic, if it occurs, likely won’t happen until next year at the earliest, Stolzman said.
Stolzman supports the idea for the overpass. He doesn’t like blocking crossings, he said, and the construction wouldn’t have much of an effect on the railroad.
Brown said the city, railroad and INDOT are all motivated to work together to get the project rolling, though the earliest date for construction to begin would be mid-2018.
McClellan said that, while officials are working with the city and giving strong consideration to the overpass, they also will look to see if there are other, more immediate solutions.
At the intersection of State Roads 46 and 11, lane adjustments and changes in street signal timings could begin to reduce congestion, McClellan said.
McClellan said INDOT does “really want to work with the city and try to come up with some solutions.”
It’s why he and the department’s chief of staff, Troy Woodruff, have been meeting recently with the mayor, and it’s why the state agency now is beginning to develop a conceptual design and come up with rough estimates for an overpass.
It’s too early for concrete details, he said.
But INDOT is figuring out what it can do to make traffic on State Road 46 safer and more bearable, he said.