Lowell Road and bridge improvements are a long-range project

Mike Wolanin | The Republic A view of the intersection of County Road 325W and Lowell Road in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, June 5, 2024.

This summer’s $3 million in improvements to Lowell Road, from U.S. 31 to Drummond Drive, is just one part of an long-term project involving city, county, state and federal governments.

The construction now underway through existing and future housing additions is all within the jurisdiction of the city of Columbus, including recently-annexed areas.

On the state level, the Indiana Department of Transportation will eventually improve the Lowell Road overpass over Interstate 65, while the Bartholomew County Highway Department will oversee a new approach to the Lowell Bridge from County Road 325W southwest construction of a new bridge, and over a mile of Lowell Road to the newly-established city limits.

But both the overpass and the county’s jurisdiction won’t be improved for some time, according to Bartholomew County highway engineer Danny Hollander.

“It’s not nearly as far as (the city) in development,” Hollander said.

The bridge project

Of all the related projects, the largest will be the long-awaited construction of a new Lowell Bridge next to the current structure over the Driftwood River. While the current 433-foot bridge is structurally sound, Hollander says the lanes are considered too narrow for today’s vehicles.

In March 2023, it was announced that Bartholomew County will receive $5,520,000 for the Lowell Bridge replacement, while a separate grant of $2,397,600 will be provided to reconfigure the southern approach to the future new bridge from County Road 325W.

But in order to receive the federal money, county government will be required to come up with 20% of the grant for the bridge replacement and 10% for the reconfiguration, Hollander added.

Estimates for a new bridge, a roundabout at the junction of Lowell and Road 325W, additional designing and engineering fees may run as high as $11 million – much higher that the $195,000 spent on the current bridge in 1959.

Hollander expressed confidence the new Lowell Bridge, second only to Southern Crossing in terms of length in Bartholomew County, can be constructed at a lower price. But cost estimates still remain over what the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) had programmed to pay in matches to the federal grant, Hollander said.

CAMPO’s primary purpose is the local coordination and distribution of federal transportation funds.

In addition, the county’s upgrade isn’t likely to begin until 2027 because the federal funds aren’t expected to become available until late 2026, the highway engineer said.

It is hoped the long delay will provide enough time to find ways for the county to pay their portion of the bill, Hollander said. In the meantime, the county is using the summer to purchase right-of-way for the improvements, he said.

Fishing site

Recently, access to the Lowell Road Driftwood River boat launch, off Road 325W next to the Lowell Bridge, was the subject of negotiations with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Hollander said.

Originally, the county proposed moving the vehicular entrance of the fishing site to the north side of Lowell Road, and having the public drive underneath the new bridge to the boat launch.

“But DNR didn’t like that,” Hollander said. “We’ve been negotiating with them on how we can configure the boat ramp, the parking area, and the access road to satisfy them. I think we have finally gotten over that hurdle.”

Design work is now expected to start moving at a faster rate, but different designs are submitted for approval at different stages, Hollander said.

“The first submission should be finalized in the next couple of months,” the highway engineer said. “These are Stage One plans where all of your alignments will be. Then, you get into the nitty-gritty and details later. They aren’t going to be finalized until it’s almost ready to bid.”

Changing priorities

Originally, the county’s 1.2 miles of improvements were considered the first phase of the entire Lowell Road project by CAMPO, and the city’s section was considered Phase 2 in their Transportation Improvement Program.

But then came a plethora of housing projects off or near Lowell Road. The latest additions include two phases of Arbor Homes and the recently-annexed land where the 273-lot Sutter Place subdivision will be built near I-65.

When the city recently announced they will install a roundabout at the junction of 200W and Lowell Road, their annexation stretched further west to just past Drummond Drive, Hollander said.

Since the city’s portion of Lowell Road will carry a much higher traffic volume than the county’s section, all parties agreed that the road going through housing additions should be completed first, he said.

In early May, Columbus city engineer Andrew Beckort and Hollander met with representatives of INDOT about improvements to the I-65 overpass. While both engineers are requesting pedestrian and bicycling opportunities on the overpass, an INDOT representative said the structure isn’t scheduled for an upgrade until 2030, Hollander said.

Besides the Road 325W approach and a new Lowell Bridge, the county plans to widen the shoulders and improve curves along their 1.2 mile jurisdiction of Lowell Road to meet established standards for the volume of traffic, the engineer said.

Although 325W and Lowell Road already serves as an unofficial, but well used bypass between State Road 46 and U.S. 31, there is a limited amount of development that can be done, according to Hollander.

“I think we are making a bypass to the greatest extent possible on a county road with driveways and residences,” Hollander said. “But it’s not going to be like a state highway or anything.”