By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
Minus the campfire and moonlight, the tales revealed by downtown property owners inside the living room of East Spring Street Neighborhood Association President Greg Roberts sounded more like horror stories than reality.
Last year, Charlie Harshfield’s car was totaled when struck by a vehicle near his East Elm Street home. Just a few months later, his new truck was also severely damaged when hit by a car, and he said his vehicles have been side-swiped three times on the street with the various wrecks resulting in $20,000 in repair costs.
Mark Sanders lives off East Spring Street, near the slight curve in the road close to East 10th Street, and has had two vehicles totaled due to wrecks in less than 10 years.
With the Ohio River Bridges Project underway, the neighborhood group is pushing for the city to address what they feel is a dangerous traffic grid before more motorists head to New Albany to avoid tolls which will be placed on downtown interstate bridges and the new east-end bridge.
Roads such as Spring, Elm and Market Streets are already sped through by motorists who show no concern for the neighborhood they’re endangering, Roberts and other members of the group said.
“They don’t live here and they don’t care about the people that live here every day,” Harshfield said.
Overwhelmingly, the residents and business owners interviewed by the News and Tribune for this story said they support two-way streets in downtown New Albany for safety and commerce reasons, and added that the bridges project should make that decision even more clear for city leaders.
CONGESTION ON THE WAY?
Though planners for the $2.6 billion bridges project — one of the largest construction projects in the country — ruled that New Albany would not see a substantial impact from the work, city officials have never believed that to be true.
Interstate 265 as well as downtown will be affected by the project, Mayor Jeff Gahan said, with the question being how much and for how long?
“Congestion is not always a bad thing, especially if people come to New Albany and experience it for the first time, at least they’ll have the opportunity to be introduced to our city,” Gahan said this week. “But sometimes traffic can be a deterrent. Too much of it can create an environment where people don’t want to live, and we’re very concerned about that.”
Electronic tolling will be utilized when the project is completed in 2016 on the new downtown and east-end bridges, as well as on the Kennedy Bridge, all in Clark County. The Clark Memorial Bridge and Sherman Minton Bridges — which carries Interstate 64 traffic into and out of New Albany — will not be tolled.
PLANNING FOR CHANGE
Some officials and residents believe motorists will eventually adjust to the tolls and stick with their normal travel routes instead of driving to New Albany to access the Sherman Minton Bridge.
But when the tolls begin, New Albany will see more traffic, and the city has hired nationally acclaimed author and planner Jeff Speck to study the downtown street grid and provide recommendations on how to improve the corridor.
Speck — author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” — is a proponent of enhancing pedestrian accessibility and generally favors two-way streets.
Those are both issues the East Spring Neighborhood Association agrees with Speck on, as Roberts said streets like Spring, Elm and Market should have been converted to two-way traffic flow several years ago.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said.
The organization has ordered signs that echo support for two-way streets to give to downtown residents and businesses, as Roberts said people need to pressure the administration to make the conversions before tolling begins.
“I think the mayor’s office is concerned that there’s not many people wanting this,” Roberts said of two-way traffic.
New Albany City Councilman Greg Phipps sponsored an appropriation last year that would have provided funds for a street study. The survey was to include suggestions on converting streets to two-way.
The appropriation ultimately failed to pass, though the administration through the Board of Public Works and Safety and New Albany Redevelopment Commission helped garner funds to hire Speck.
Phipps promised during his campaign to fight for two-way streets, and said he hopes the administration will act, as the council hasn’t passed a measure giving the body authority to change street direction.
“I feel like I’ve done all I can do with it,” he said. “I think they could act without the study. The study is no guarantee that they’re going to act on its recommendations, but I hope that they do.”
David Duggins, director of economic development and redevelopment for the city, said this week that Speck’s expertise lends itself well to New Albany’s situation.
The city wants to improve safety for pedestrians and motorists, and needs a comprehensive evaluation of the existing grid as well as professional recommendations on how the area could be enhanced ahead of the bridges project, Duggins said.
“It’s exciting to be able to work with such a nationally recognized expert, but I think it speaks highly of New Albany and the Gahan administration to have the ability to bring on someone of [Speck’s] caliber,” he said.
EAST MAIN STREET PROJECT
Construction began this week for the East Main Street project, as improvements are to include the installation of grassy medians and new sidewalks from East Fifth Street to Vincennes Street.
Already a two-way street, residents said similar improvements are needed for Elm and Spring Streets.
“The mayor has already made the case as to why these improvements are important,” said John Smith, who recently moved to East Spring Street with his wife, Jessica, and their daughter.
City officials have said the East Main Street project is intended to reduce vehicular speed and make the corridor safer for pedestrians — the same qualities Jessica and John Smith said should be warranted for Spring, Market and Elm Streets.
“We have a 10-year-old daughter, and there’s no way I’d ever let her play outside by herself because of the pace of the cars and how fast they’re going,” she said.
Phipps added that while he supports the East Main Street improvements, he’s concerned more tractor trailer traffic will divert to other downtown streets as a result of the project.
But the improvements are being primarily footed by funds given to the city by the state for assuming control of about 4.5 miles of Ind. 111. Gahan said the project is just one part of the planning and improvements being completed by the city ahead of the completion of the bridges project.
The city has also recently hired a full-time engineer, and part of his responsibility will be to review infrastructure projects.
IT’S NOT ALL BAD
With change comes opportunity, and New Albany could benefit from the bridges project in terms of economic development and travel.
“In general, I think it will improve the way we move throughout the region, and I think that’s a good thing,” Gahan said.
Some may choose to stay in Southern Indiana to shop and dine instead of paying a toll to drive to Louisville.
Cisa Barry, owner of Sew Fitting inside The White House Centre off Pearl Street, said many downtown businesses enjoyed a boost in sales when the Sherman Minton Bridge was closed for repairs in 2011.
“All we found was that people who were on this side of the Ohio River didn’t want to go to Louisville to deal with the hassles, so they stayed here,” she said.
But like other business owners and residents, she feels the city should convert streets to two-way traffic before tolling begins.
“Already with our existing traffic, people go flying down Spring and Market Street,” Barry said.
Even if there’s more congestion on Spring Street as a result of it being turned to two-way, people will be safer and businesses will be more likely to receive new customers because motorists will actually have a greater chance of noticing New Albany establishments, she continued.
DON’T FORGET I-265
While many have discussed publicly the impact the bridges project will have on New Albany’s downtown, Gahan said he’s also concerned with the I-265 corridor.
One of Gahan’s primary worries is that the additional traffic will result in sound pollution along I-265. Yes, the interstate has been there for years, but residents will be hearing more vehicles pass by as motorists come to New Albany to avoid paying tolls, Gahan said.
The city will approach the state about funding for sound barriers in hopes of receiving a grant.
“That doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar at the state level, but it’s certainly one of my concerns,” Gahan said.