PERU – The Indiana Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to install five J-turn intersections on U.S. 31 in Miami County just three year after pulling a similar proposal that received fierce pushback from legislators and residents.
INDOT confirmed last week it will install the intersections, which the state now calls median U-turns, at the intersections of 850 South, Ind. 218 South junction that goes into Bunker, Ind. 218 North junction that runs by Grissom Air Reserve Base, 100 North and Ind. 16.
Median U-turns are an alternative to traditional roadway intersections that requires traffic turning onto U.S. 31 to first travel south or north and then make a U-turn into traffic.
In 2017, INDOT announced plans to eliminate the traffic lights along U.S. 31 at the intersections of Ind. 218 North junction and Ind. 18 and install median U-turns.
That proposal drew unanimous and fierce criticism from residents, county officials and state legislators during an hours-long public hearing, which led INDOT to pull the project.
Now, three years later, county officials are calling foul after INDOT confirmed it will install five of the controversial interchanges as part of the state’s long-term plan to turn U.S. 31 into a free-flowing highway without any traffic signals.
Jim Tidd, executive director of the Miami County Economic Development Authority, said it’s difficult to believe the state is moving forward with median U-turns considering the instant, and sustained, criticism the last proposal received in 2017.
“Needless to say, we’re disappointed,” he said. “This is totally different than what we heard out of the governor’s office when this issue came up. They are still claiming these are going to add safety to U.S. 31, and we’re saying they’re not, and I think most of the residents say they’re not. It’s just a cheap way of getting out building interchanges.”
Brad Bagwell, president of the U.S. 31 Coalition, which advocates for the highway be turned into a freeway, called the new median U-turns “Band-Aid fixes” for the safety issues on U.S. 31.
He said over half the traffic on the highway drives over 65 mph in most places, which makes it difficult to make a U-turn into traffic.
“J-turns work in some places, and can be a great fit for low-traffic, low-speed roads,” Bagwell wrote in an editorial. “But U.S. 31 is not that type of road.”
But Nichole Hacha-Thomas, media relations director for INDOT’s Fort Wayne district, said data shows that median U-turns work reduce the number and severity of crashes, regardless of the negative sentiment some have towards them.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. 31 Coalition has given J-turns a bad name,” she said. “… Some of the fears about turning into traffic and merging into three lanes is just unfounded, because that’s not the way you drive a U-turn.”
Hacha-Thomas said median U-turns make it easier to navigate an intersection because drivers only have to manage one direction of traffic at a time. She said the intersections would be designed to accommodate large vehicles such as semis and tractors.
Installing median U-turns will also achieve the state’s goal of making U.S. 31 a free-flow highway with no traffic lights, she said, but at a fraction of the cost of installing full on interchanges like the one at U.S. 31 and Ind. 28 in Tipton County.
“Why use dollars that aren’t needed?” Hacha-Thomas said. “If we can reach the same goal at a more cost-effective dollar amount, why wouldn’t we? That’s our duty to the taxpayers.”
But, Tidd said, it’s unfair for INDOT to spend millions of dollars on new interchanges in Howard and Tipton counties, but then use a low-cost approach in Miami County that won’t solve any problems.
“It may be in the best interest of INDOT for cost saving, but it’s not in the best interest of the constituents up and down the corridor of U.S. 31,” he said.
INDOT is installing two new full-on interchanges in Miami County at Ind. 18 and Business 31. Those projects are projected to be finished by 2023.
New interchanges are also being built at 236th Street in Hamilton County and Ind. 10 in Marshall County. The total cost of all four new interchanges is around $100 million, according to INDOT.
The state’s long-term capital plan, called Next Level Roads, is also investing nearly $300 million on U.S. 31 to improve intersections, remove railroad overpasses and eliminate private driveway access.
Hacha-Thomas said although Miami County will have five median U-turns, INDOT could reevaluate the intersections in the future to see if they warrant full-on interchanges like the ones being built at the two intersections.
“We can still reevaluate our plans as we move forward,” she said. “Priorities can change. What we know now is that we can go back and build interchanges if we find that that’s what warranted.”
Hacha-Thomas said some intersections on U.S. 31 at lightly trafficked county roads may not be changed at all and require drivers to simply stop and merge into traffic like they do now.
Tidd said local and state officials are currently formulating a plan to convince INDOT to hold off, once again, on installing median U-turns on U.S. 31 in order to develop a long-term plan to fund the construction of interchanges instead.
But, Hacha-Thomas said, once the median U-turns are implemented, it won’t take long for drivers to get used to them.
“Miami County may not love this, but we know that they work and they’re worth the investment,” she said. “People will learn how to use them.”