From day to day, a downtown Franklin business has no idea what the best route will be for their customers.
Patients headed to the Frechette Eye Center will call once they reach either the city’s construction on Jefferson Street or the closed railroad tracks, which are currently getting an upgrade by the railroad company, and ask how to get the final few blocks to the office.
Employees do their best to direct them through the maze of road and crossing closures at any given moment, but sometimes, the route that was best for them to take hours ago is suddenly closed, office manager Teresa Pursifull said.
“We have had people call, and say, ‘I am right here,’ so we try to tell them the best way. And then they find it’s closed, and then you aren’t sure where to go,” she said.
Story continues below gallery
The daily shuffle of what railroad crossings are open, combined with a long-planned project to upgrade Jefferson Street downtown, has become a big source of frustration for downtown visitors, residents and workers. Not only is Jefferson Street closed, from Home Avenue to East Court Street, an upgrade to the Louisville and Indiana Railroad Co. tracks is causing workers to close crossings around downtown. For example, on Thursday morning, the crossings on Monroe and King streets were closed. The evening before, Monroe was open, but Branigin Boulevard and Jefferson Street were closed.
Drivers and city officials have played a constant guessing game, and the only people who had an inkling of what to expect were firefighters.
City officials have been frustrated with the railroad company and its construction crews since the work started and tried to put in place rules so that public safety wasn’t affected and drivers could still get around, Mayor Steve Barnett and city engineer Mark Richards said this week.
This week, city officials had had enough — for a second time. Richards spent Thursday talking to the railroad company and its four subcontractors about the work, the concerns and the lack of communication. What Franklin residents have experienced from the railroad work is not what the city intended or expected when learning about the project, Richards said.
The Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. tracks stretch the county, cutting into Greenwood, Franklin, Whiteland and Edinburgh. The tracks are in the middle of an upgrade, which will allow them to carry more trains that travel at a faster speed. That work is set to be finished in August. City leaders wanted the work done properly but as quickly as possible.
The railroad company was not available for comment. A meeting is scheduled for today between the railroad company and city officials, Barnett said.
The company came to Franklin officials this spring to get permits to close roads, and city officials granted the permits with some conditions, Richards said. For example, if the King Street crossing was closed, no other downtown crossings could be closed. City officials wanted to make sure traffic and emergency crews could easily get through the city, especially since Jefferson Street is also closed.
Public safety and access to areas are critical issues, Richards said.
When work started, construction crews immediately closed Branigin, Monroe, Jefferson and King street crossings at the same time. City officials put a stop to that but have struggled to have communication from the crews replacing the railroad ties, paving the approaches, managing and inspecting the work, Richards said. Richards and Barnett also got involved when temporary patching on Monroe Street was so rough it could damage vehicles.
The firefighters have been given information by the railroad company about the planned closures, but no one else knew what to expect.
Everyday, a railroad company representative is in contact with fire department officials, so they know what crossings will be closed that day, Franklin Fire Chief Dan McElyea said.
That information is then passed onto lieutenants at each of the city’s three fire stations and ambulance crews, letting them plan for what to avoid and what routes to take to get to emergencies the fastest, he said. Their goal is to avoid a situation where a large fire truck would end up at a closed crossing and then would have to back the truck up several hundred feet to turn around, he said.
But even with a daily plan to avoid closures, the detours are costing emergency crews precious minutes in their response times, he said.
“All we are doing is improvising. We are at the mercy of the railroad,” he said.
“We are just working with it the best we can.”
The city has also reached out to other fire departments in surrounding communities, including Amity and Whiteland, to ask for help if needed when responding to emergencies. Those communities are or will soon be dealing with railroad crossing closures in their areas, so Franklin will help them when needed as well, he said.
So far, crews have been able to set a plan that allows them to avoid any issues, he said. But they are looking forward to when the work will be done, making railroad crossings safer and improving the look of Jefferson Street, he said.
Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan said that as he has periodically gotten updates from Richards about the closings, he has posted the information for the city’s police officers, but officers know the city’s streets well and can adapt quickly. He raised no concerns about the changing closures’ impact on officers’ response times.
The closings and construction are the talk of shoppers and business operators in downtown Franklin, said Fred Paris, who owns and operates Triple Play BBQ.
Customers of Jefferson St. Barber Shop, located on the part of Jefferson Street under construction, often call to ask how to get to the shop, only to find that their route will need to be different when they make the trip or the next time they came, owner Brandy Jeffery said. Finding parking with the ongoing Jefferson Street construction project has been a bigger problem, she said.
The Grill Bar customers are also finding that they have to park further away, or their walks to get to the downtown bar and restaurant take longer because crosswalks are blocked off, manager Erin Ludwig said. Street-side parking behind the downtown businesses is filling quickly, but loyal customers are figuring out how to find their way in, she said.
Greek’s Pizzeria and Tapp Room is located on the end of the Jefferson Street construction zone, meaning customers can come into downtown on Main Street, see that the business is open, park on East or West Court streets and walk over, owner Jason Tapp said. He said downtown businesses affected by Jefferson Street work and the railroad crossings have to take responsibility for using social media to let customers know and see that they can still get to them, such as available parking and open sidewalks.
But the actual route to the businesses is changing daily, and the local store and restaurant operators can’t keep customers informed minute-by-minute on how to get into downtown Franklin, Tapp said.
Separate from the railroad crossing work, the city is doing a great job at managing the Jefferson Street project and keeping businesses informed about the work, and crews are making sure they are accessible to customers.
Paris said he is happy that Jefferson Street reopened in front of his restaurant to U.S. 31, which has allowed customers a much easier time reaching them.
“Anything that blocks traffic obviously hurts business,” Paris said.
But he is also looking forward to 2020, when work on Jefferson Street will be complete, he said.
Railroad crossing closures
Here’s what work is complete and what to expect in the coming days and next week. No railroad crossing should be closed for more than 24 hours.
Branigin Boulevard: Completed
Monroe Street: Completed on Thursday
King Street: Finish paving today
Jefferson Street: Likely finish paving today
Adams and Cincinnati streets: This weekend
Next: Commerce and Earlywood drives. When the Commerce Drive crossing is closed, no other crossing can be closed. The crossing at Graham Road and Lynhurst Street will be under construction in a week or two.