La PORTE — A Detroit Street business owner prompted La Porte’s Director of Engineering to expose potential changes to the downtown during Monday’s City Council meeting where it was revealed that the city’s Engineering Department had received a grant to fund the construction of an overpass on Tipton Street.
Director of Engineering Nicholas Minich addressed the matter during public comment.
“With our application we took a bigger look at how to improve safety, increase mobility and increase accessibility [across the community]," Minich said. "We worked with consultant, Patrick Engineering, who specializes in this field, and we looked at the alternative of putting an overpass at Tipton Street.”
The overpass will limit public exposure to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks that run through downtown. The railroad tracks were presented as a public safety issue and necessity for the overpass project.
“We’re going to increase public safety," Minich said. "We're going to have routes going back into the New Porte Landing Development area, and firefighters, police, ambulances, are going to be able to traverse the railroad, even if there’s a situation that would stop them with the current overpass.”
The funding for the project is contingent on the closure of other access streets to the downtown area. Should the council accept the grant, both Detroit Street and Pulaski Street are expected to close.
“One of the key parts of our application was the closure of Pulaski Street," Minich said. "Pulaski Street had previously been committed for closure to Norfolk Southern’s predecessor back in the 90s and we never moved forward with it. That is actually, from my research, the dangerous crossing of the Norfolk Southern railway in La Porte County.”
He went into more detail, “In coordination with Norfolk Southern, their recommendation was that our application would not be successful with one closure and putting in an overpass, and they encouraged us to look at some other alternatives. We looked at another alternative that included putting an overpass at Tipton Street and having on that overpass a direct connection back to Detroit Street. That’s not really feasible, but we do have Linwood [Avenue]. The location [of the overpass] closes Detroit Street, but it also relocates access to the overpass. We’re going to be ideally increasing people’s reliability of rail crossings.”
The Engineering Department looked at several scenarios for the overpass before landing on what they would submit for grant approval.
“The grant proposal we put in was for an overpass at Tipton Street with a ramp back to Linwood [Avenue] crossing the NIPSCO property adjacent to the tracks," Minich confirmed. "If you’re coming south instead of going over the overpass, you would have another ramp that would take you to that one way street going back into Linwood paired with Clear Lake Boulevard. So you have a one way pair between Clear Lake Boulevard, with a new access road just on the north side of the tracks. All of that access [is] taking you directly within a block of the original Detroit Street.”
The grant application was not discussed with the City Council before being submitted for consideration. Minich’s presentation during public comment was the first time some of the council members had heard of the potential closure of the local streets.
“Our application was accepted. I’d love to give you an update that says [whether or not] we are going to close Detroit Street. I can’t tell you that,” Minich said to the council. “That’s something that you will decide at a later date."
The accepted grant is expected to cover 80 percent of the project’s construction costs with a 20 percent match from the city.
“With this grant, INDOT manages all of the upfront design," Minich said. "I’ve reached out to the consultant in charge of this project, and the response back was, ‘we’re looking at all of the alternatives and we’re going to generate a report, and we’ll submit the report to INDOT in the fall.’ That’s all I know.”
First Ward Councilwoman Renee Scherer followed the explanation by saying, “So what you’re doing is shutting off the First Ward down to one street, basically."
Detroit Street, said Scherer, is the best access to NewPorte Landing from that area.
"Otherwise we would have to take that access by the light by Al’s [Boston Street]. That’s also a truck route to Genesis Drive, so you’re going to be funneling — a ward — basically into one entrance and exit to go north?" asked Scherer. "We know we have traffic problems here downtown, we’re trying to get a loop, now you’re taking more access away from us to go north to Pine Lake, NewPorte Landing and Kroger shopping? You’re going to force us into [only] two routes? That doesn’t make sense! Leave Detroit open, it isn’t needed.”
Councilman Joe Mrozinske also disapproved of the project.
“Detroit Street is the most accessible to the downtown. Fundamentally, where I have issue is that they put in a plan, applied for a grant, knowing for a fact that we, the council, who represent the people, were not consulted in any way, shape or form. We had no time," Mrozinske said. "I’ve talked to several business owners who have had to find out information on their own that they’re shutting things down. Why did we even apply for a grant without the common courtesy to come to the council and say, ‘this is what we’re thinking.’”
Mrozinske said he would never support the closure of Detroit Street.
"Let’s start using some common sense. Let’s ask the people before we make these decisions. Let’s ask the people before we apply for grants," Mrozinske said. "You say public safety, I say, no because we’re going to run the Chessie Trail across the same railroad tracks, and let kids walk on the path that we’ve had to put across guards. If it’s safe to walk across, it’s safe to drive a car.”
Minich responded to the council’s dissatisfaction, “I’d really like to remind you that we’ve put forth what we thought was the best proposal to receive a grant. There is a time when you will have your opportunity to vote on the closure. There will be an opportunity to vote on funding. There will be that opportunity to have that check and balance.”
Mrozinske interjected, “But when our time was to vote on closure, when the same thing happened to Hoelocker, it was after they cut it open and shut the street down. That’s too late. If this was part of the grant procedure, it should have come to us months ago,” he explained further, “Hoelocker was closed down, and it would have taken money to open it back up. I’m not saying it’s a bad deal that we have it shut down, but you can’t shut down the street and then come back to the council and say, ‘this is what we need to do.’”
The council has not yet voted to accept or decline the funding for the overpass project. Currently, it has not been announced as to when this matter will come before the City Council.