Changes to U.S. 31 cause worry in Carmel

A large section of Meridian Street in Carmel will be transformed to a limited-access highway by the end of this year.

The stoplights at 126th Street/Carmel Drive and 136th Street will be gone, allowing drivers to zip past the city. Commuters will surely appreciate the convenience, but people trying to move around Carmel face a multitude of adjustments, during construction and as a result of it.

Mayor Jim Brainard and Indiana Department of Transportation officials believe the U.S. 31 plans benefit Carmel by easing the flow of cross-town traffic and connecting neighborhoods west of the highway with new downtown development. But some of the mayor’s detractors wonder whether city streets are ready to absorb the changes.

Sharp Sharp

“It looks to me like it has all the potential to be a major choke point,” City Council member Rick Sharp said of Main Street.

INDOT’s plans call for building an overpass at 126th Street/Carmel Drive and interchanges at 131st/Main Street and 136th Street. The interchange placement means Carmel Drive, a four-lane commercial corridor, and Main Street, a two-lane road that cuts through a residential area, will take on new roles.

Main Street will become a major thoroughfare connecting interstate travelers to downtown and the Arts & Design District, while Carmel Drive might become the preferred route for locals.

U.S. 31 mapThe city’s long-term plan calls for widening 131st Street to four lanes west of the highway and on the east side from the interchange to Guilford Road.

“The city wants to, but there’s a question of funds available,” Sharp said.

INDOT spokesman Nathan Riggs said the state’s traffic analysis showed that the 131st Street interchange will work without widening the feeder road, but projections for 2030 assume 131st Street will be four lanes.

The interchange placement, which INDOT finalized in fall 2007, will affect surrounding real estate. The obvious winner is Browning Investments, which since 2008 has been working on a 36-acre multi-use development near St. Vincent Carmel Hospital called Meridian & Main.

Real estate professionals said they expect Kite Realty Group’s strip center southeast of Meridian and Carmel Drive to take a hit. A Kite spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Sitehawk Retail Real Estate principal Mark Perlstein said U.S. 31 will have a similar effect on Carmel Drive as the Keystone Avenue expressway had on the Merchant Square shopping center.

“It’s going to pose a challenge for all the retailers and restaurants in the area,” he said.

But not all properties near Carmel Drive are suffering. Perlstein said the new Blaze Pizza and Chipotle restaurants on Pennsylvania Street, parallel to Meridian north of Carmel Drive, are paying near the highest rents for retail in the city. The office-building corridor creates a huge daytime population, and there aren’t many places to build, he said.

“It’s very competitive,” he said.

Perlstein agreed that the overall plan will create better east-west connectivity.

“You know what, it’s progress,” he said. “It needed to be done.”

INDOT will bend a highway-design rule of thumb by placing interchanges less than one mile apart at 131st Street and 136th Street, but Riggs said it became clear early on in the planning process that that’s what would work best for the local transportation grid. He said INDOT was also persuaded by right-of-way acquisition costs, which were lower at 131st Street than at Carmel Drive.

“This is the best route because Main Street is the roadway that covers all of Carmel, east and west,” Brainard said in an email. He noted that 126th Street/Carmel Drive meanders northwest, which means westbound traffic would end up on 131st Street, anyway.

Sharp, who sat on INDOT’s community advisory committee for U.S. 31, said the interchange placement is the result of Brainard’s lobbying.

City Council President Eric Seidensticker said Brainard only wanted to drive traffic into the Arts and Design district.

“The bottom line is, there wasn’t any input received, none solicited,” he said.

Brainard disputed that he alone influenced the interchange placement. Carmel’s preference for 131st Street has been on the books nearly 15 years, he said. It was first identified by a Meridian Street task force in 1998, and two years later it was included in the city’s comprehensive plan, approved by the Plan Commission and City Council, he said. “So this is not a new concept at all.”

Detours ahead

Carmel mayor Jim Brainard Brainard

INDOT’s recent decision to close a section of U.S. 31 on April 4, instead of next year, touched off further finger-pointing by Brainard’s opponents on the city council.

The city plans sometime this year to extend and rebuild Illinois Street from south of 116th Street, linking it to 103rd Street and Springmill Road. Now that work, which requires closing 106th Street, will have to be coordinated with INDOT.

Sharp said Illinois Street could have been finished sooner, but Brainard kept insisting on pulling money from a tax-increment financing fund the council wants to reserve for debt service. The council’s plan to use a combination of bonding and cash prevailed.

“We had to wait for the mayor to come along,” Sharp said.

Brainard said the fact that Illinois Street isn’t finished won’t affect local drivers looking for alternate routes. Traffic can still access U.S. 31 at 116th Street, he said. During the U.S. 31 closure, INDOT will allow local traffic to cross over the highway on Carmel Drive or at other points, depending on the phase of construction.

INDOT says it will have the section of U.S. 31 from the south end of Old Meridian Street to 136th Street open by Thanksgiving. The rest of the work from Interstate 465 north of 116th Street will take place in 2015.

Motorists face a mind-boggling number of detours in the next year alone:

• Starting as early as March 10, INDOT will close a small section of 131st Street to start building a roundabout that will help control traffic at the new interchange.

• Early this summer, INDOT will close Smokey Row Road at Old Meridian Street for about 60 days to build a roundabout that’s to help control traffic at the new 136th Street interchange.

• Sometime this year, Carmel will start work on Illinois Street. The city will have to close 106th Street for roundabout construction.

• Also this year, Carmel will build a roundabout at 111th and Pennsylvania streets.

INDOT’s early closure of U.S. 31 means Carmel will have to rethink its scheduling of the Illinois and Pennsylvania street projects, spokeswoman Nancy Heck said, but the city will not close 106th Street and 111th Street at the same time.•

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