HANCOCK COUNTY – Officials behind a proposed project to trade travel lanes for a center turn lane on much of West U.S. 40 say the changes will make the thoroughfare safer.
Not all county residents are convinced it’s the best course of action, however.
The Indiana Department of Transportation is planning the project on about 8.5 miles of U.S. 40 between the bridge over Buck Creek on Cumberland’s east side and Monroe Street in Greenfield, near the Circle K gas station.
The project would entail resurfacing that stretch of the road as well as taking much of it from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction with a center left-turn lane. All work would be done in the existing right-of-way.
Neal Bennett, director of environmental services for Butler, Fairman & Seufert, an Indianapolis-based civil engineering firm, is working with INDOT on the project. He said at a public meeting this week that the need for the improvements stems from a pavement analysis determining that the road condition is deteriorating and an analysis revealing a high amount of accidents.
Gary Pool, Hancock County highway engineer, noted at the meeting that there have been two traffic fatalities on that part of U.S. 40 in the past five years.
Luis Laracuente, a traffic engineer with INDOT’s Greenfield District, acknowledged reducing the amount of travel lanes seems counterintuitive when considering all of the recent and anticipated growth in western Hancock County. But he also noted when traveling on that part of U.S. 40 and needing to turn left, motorists must do so from a left travel lane, risking rear-end collisions.
Then there’s the risk of angle crashes, he continued, due to motorists having to cross two lanes of traffic when turning left. Those looking to turn left out of driveways along U.S. 40 have to gauge four lanes of traffic before pulling out, he also noted.
Laracuente said the proposed changes would create a designated lane for turning left while creating fewer traffic lanes to watch when turning off and onto the road.
“It calms traffic and you get more consistent speeds,” he said.
The reconfiguration, called a road diet, would follow one completed farther east on U.S. 40 in 2019. Laracuente said in the two years following that road diet, the area saw a 70% decrease in injury crashes and a similar decrease in total crashes.
According to the proposed plans, U.S. 40 from the bridge over Buck Creek to Mt. Comfort Road would be one lane in each direction with a center turn lane. Between Mt. Comfort Road and CR 500W would keep its current configuration of two lanes in each direction with no center turn lane in order to maintain capacity near the busy intersection, Laracuente said.
A stretch of U.S. 40 near 500W and Realife Church consists of two lanes in each direction with a center turn lane. That would be maintained. East of that would be changed from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction with a center left-turn lane all the way to Windswept Road.
The project also presents an opportunity for INDOT to partner with Hancock County to extend the Pennsy Trail between CR 300W and CR 200W. That option currently consists of adding a 10-foot-wide trail on U.S. 40’s south side separated by a 3-foot raised median that would maintain access to properties and mailboxes. It would allow the county to avoid what officials described as significant impacts to private property in the area and potential impacts to a nearby cemetery.
The project is anticipated to begin in spring 2024. Officials emphasized it wouldn’t occur until after a project currently underway adding travel lanes to I-70 in western Hancock County, increasing the interstate to three lanes in each direction. Officials expect that to reduce traffic diverting to U.S. 40 to avoid construction and closures caused by crashes on the interstate.
Attendees shared concerns at the recent public meeting, including skepticism that the extra lanes on I-70 will be enough to quell clogs on U.S. 40. They also noted that reducing U.S. 40 to one lane in each direction creates the inability to pass motorists driving significantly under the speed limit. Then there’s the potential dangers arising from drivers using the center turn lane as a passing lane, some said as well.
Fountaintown resident George Stant, a licensed professional engineer in Indiana and a county emergency management volunteer, spoke at the meeting too.
“When I first saw this, my initial reaction was I think you’re going to have unintended consequences,” Stant said. “You may trade rear-end collisions and turning collisions to head-on collisions.”
He has doubts the project could overcome “the human factor.”
“You’re not going to change people’s behavior,” he said. “If they’re in a hurry, they’re going to pass.”
Scott Wooldridge, a Hancock County Council member-elect representing a district the project is in, said a majority of his future constituents are against any type of road diet. He added the reduction in crashes along the part of U.S. 40 that received a road diet in 2019 is a benefit, however. Wooldridge said he wishes there were other alternatives, but noted the few that exist would likely be welcomed even less.
“It’s unfortunate, it doesn’t sound like there’s many options unless you do eminent domain or something egregious that people don’t want to see,” he said.
Wooldridge also asked that project organizers consider road rage as they continue their plans, recalling instances of angry motorist behavior on U.S. 40 since the prior road diet was completed.
Officials will continue to accept public feedback on the project. Mailed comments postmarked by Dec. 6, 2022 will become part of the transcript and addressed in the same manner as comments made at the meeting. Comments can be mailed to Butler, Fairman & Seufert, Inc., 8450 Westfield Blvd., Suite 300, Indianapolis, IN 46240-8302. Comments can also be emailed to [email protected]