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Trailblazing the new U.S. 31

Will the new highway help or hurt the small towns along the existing road?

November 17, 2010|By Chad Damp (damp@wsbt.com)
  • Kenilworth Road Bridge over the new US 31 highway in southern St. Joseph County.
WSBT/Chad Damp

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY — For nearly a century, U.S. 31 has been the main highway between South Bend and Indianapolis. But heavy congestion and countless accidents have created the need for a major upgrade. Two years ago, INDOT broke ground on a new 20-mile corridor between South Bend and Plymouth.

The project has been in the works for nearly two decades. A concentrated effort to improve one of the state’s oldest and most traveled highways, US 31. But if history is any indication, as the new road moves toward completion, it could take the future of the cities along the current highway in an unwanted direction.

After years of studies and legislative hurdles, culminating in the lease of the Indiana Toll Road, the Major Moves project began. One of the biggest jobs is major upgrades to U.S. 31. The project focuses on three sections of the 120-mile stretch of road.

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At the groundbreaking in 2008, Governor Mitch Daniels said, "This has been a missing link to connect the St. Joe [and] Elkhart area, not just to Indianapolis and the towns in-between, but the roads it will intersect."

The longest part of the project is the 20 miles of highway between South Bend and Plymouth. Currently the drive takes you through two towns, Lakeville and LaPaz. Drivers have to deal with 6 traffic lights and 11 speed limit changes. The Indiana Department of Transportation says making the trip safer is one of the project's main goals.

"Getting rid of a lot of those intersections that are currently on the highway now, and making it so that we reduce some of those dangers as you're taking that trip," said INDOT spokesperson Jim Pinkerton.

The state broke ground in September of 2008. Since then, crews and machinery have been working nonstop. They have moved millions of tons of dirt and built multiple bridges.

Unless you take a drive of the back roads of St. Joseph and Marshall counties, you won't see much of the work being done on the new highway. That's because 15 miles of the 20-mile corridor is being built on new land.

On the existing US 31, just south of Roosevelt Road, crews are building the overpass that will cross the current highway. The road, which is currently just two lanes of unpaved dirt, heads southeast. Many roads have or will have new bridges, but a dozen roads will dead end into the highway. Interchanges will be put in at 7th Road; US 6 east of LaPaz, Kern Road and one at Pierce Road will provide access to Lakeville. The new highway will bypass Lakeville by nearly two miles, taking traffic and possibly business with it.

Lakeville is the pleasant little town on little Pleasant Lake. Fewer than 600 people live here, but thousands pass through every day. Many of them stop into the Hilltop Restaurant. Karen Iovino has been part owner of the restaurant for more than 30 years. She's also been on Lakeville's town council for three years. While she says many people in town were against the new highway, there's not much they can do about it now.

"It's gonna happen,” said Iovino. “So we're trying to adjust."

But can her business survive when the town's main artery is cut off?

"We've got 30 years in this business, so I don't think we're gonna lose any customers," Iovino said.

But some are not as sure as Iovino. In an INDOT survey, at least 12 percent of business owners that are potentially affected by the project say they will close up shop when the new highway opens. 15 percent say they would relocate away from the immediate area. But if the past is any indication, Lakeville has a rough road ahead.

This isn't the first time U.S. 31 has been moved to bypass a town. For decades, the highway ran through the center of Argos. Doc Ward has lived in Argos for more than 40 years. He operated his own dental practice and was a member of the local chamber of commerce. His home, which is an historical landmark, sits on old 31.

"We had at least two or three thriving little restaurants that snagged a lot of through traffic," said Ward.

Ward says Argos was a popular place to stop, grab a bite to eat or gas up the car while traveling on U.S. 31. But when a bypass around Argos and Rochester was built in the early 1970s travelers no longer had a reason to stop in the small town.

"When the road bypassed us the world bypassed us,” Ward said.

Ward says he never noticed how heavy the traffic was in front of his home until it was gone. The effects of the move weren't immediately felt in town. But over time, Ward could do nothing but watch, as Argos slowly withered.

"The town began to die on the vine,” said Ward. “Did it die in six weeks or six months or six years? No, It’s been a long slow transition."

The question on the minds of some in Lakeville is will their town suffer the same fate?

"It's definitely gonna change I think,” said lifelong Lakeville resident Allison Baker. “A lot of the small businesses will probably go away."

But Iovino says the town council is doing everything possible to keep that from happening. The town is trying to get a grant that will improve the downtown area and may bring in new people and business.

"It is a nice little town. It’s a great little town,” said Iovino. “We just want to make it better."

So as the highway nears completion, the only thing people can do is prepare for the change and hang on for the ride.

"We're moving along with it. Because we have to," said Iovino.

The highway isn't scheduled to be open for another three to four years. But it will be decades before we know the impact the change had on the towns the road left behind.
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