Center Grove motorists: Expect your trips on State Road 37 to take a little longer and be a little more stressful when a new interstate opens next year in southern Indiana.
A 94-mile stretch of Interstate 69 between Evansville and State Road 37 south of Bloomington should be completed by the end of 2014, Indiana Department of Transportation spokeswoman Cher Elliott said.
Drivers will then have a straight shot from Evansville to Indianapolis, only they’ll sail along a limited-access interstate for much of the way. Then they’ll run into all the stop lights on State Road 37 from Bloomington to Indianapolis, and through western Johnson County.
More cars and semi-trucks will take State Road 37 through the Center Grove area, where they’ll hit a succession of stoplights at County Road 144, Smith Valley Road, Fairview Road and County Line Road. An Indiana Department of Transportation study has found that traffic could increase as much as 330 percent on State Road 37 in White River Township after it becomes part of the interstate corridor.
Center Grove area resident Kent Hopper drives State Road 37 every day and worries that traffic will be beastly with thousands of more cars and trucks on State Road 37. Center Grove residents who commute north in the morning will suffer, he said.
“State Road 37, which already backs up at stoplights such as the one at Southport Road, will be a parking lot during morning/afternoon rush hours with thousands of heavy trucks thrown into the mix,” he said. “Secondary streets going into downtown, such as Bluff Road, will be choked with the overflow.”
The White River Township Fire Department expects that heavier traffic will result in more wrecks, White River Township Fire Department Chief Jeremy Pell said. They’re prepared to handle it so long as they continue to get help from neighboring departments, such as Bargersville and Greenwood.
“If you have the same size road and it gets busier, you’re going to have more accidents in my experience,” Pell said. “It’s just cause and effect.”
Crashes that take place on State Road 37 are typically serious and sometimes fatal because of the high speeds involved, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said.
Drivers likely will be speeding even faster if they’re on an interstate with a posted speed limit of 70 mph in southern Indiana and then get onto a slower-moving state highway, Cox said.
The area could get safer when it becomes an interstate because that would eliminate the intersections where a lot of the accidents happen, Pell said. Interstate 69 also could get wire cable barriers in the median that would prevent crossover accidents, he said.
The sheriff’s office might have to send more cars to patrol State Road 37 once it’s linked with Interstate 69 to Evansville, Cox said. They’ll likely have to respond to more accidents and watch out for speeding and other reckless driving.
“You’re going to see the speeds increase and an uptick in people pressing their luck and trying to go 80 mph,” he said. “It only increases the risk.”
The environmental impact study predicted a substantial increase in traffic on State Road 37, and said traffic volume could increase by 320 to 330 percent by 2025. As many as eight lanes could be needed to handle all the additional traffic between State Road 144 in Johnson County and Indianapolis.
The situation likely wouldn’t improve until the divided four-lane highway becomes a limited-access interstate, and intersections were closed off or replaced with interchanges, Pell said.
But state officials don’t know when that will happen, or even how it will be paid for. Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said the transformation of State Road 37 into Interstate 69 through Johnson County is years away, and the state doesn’t even have a timetable yet.
So far, workers have built about 67 miles of highway from the Evansville area to the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in Greene County, Elliot said. They’re currently working on a 27-mile stretch between Crane and State Road 37 south of Bloomington, which is expected to be finished by the end of next year.
Construction on the fifth section, between Bloomington and Martinsville, should start before work ends on the current phase in late 2014, Wingfield said.
“We’ve been progressing northward and continuing with the construction,” he said.
But after Bloomington, the project gets open-ended. The state doesn’t know how long that construction will take, when it will start planning the section through Johnson County, or how long that planning will take.
The state is committing to building Interstate 69 through Johnson County to Interstate 465, but doesn’t have any timetable or funding source worked out, Wingfield said. Major Moves money from the lease of the northern Indiana toll road had paid for the initial work, but it’s since dried up and the state is now using gas tax and other road money to pay for the construction that’s underway, he said.