What to do about Markland Pike? Commissioners hear comments and concerns

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Calling it the “first step in a long process,” the Switzerland County Commissioners on Monday evening held a public meeting to hear public input on what needs to be done to make the county road more safe for traffic

Commission president Craig Bond opened the meeting by thanking the crowd – which swelled to more than 70 by the conclusion of the meeting – for taking their time to come and express their opinions on the roadway. He then introduced Phil Kuntz, vice president of JSE Engineering, who made a presentation on the two corridors that are being considered and the impact that each would have on landowners and travelers.

The possibilities involve work on either an “East Corridor” or a “West Corridor”. Both construction options begin at Markland Pike and Tapps Ridge Road, and then go south to State Road 156.

The West Corridor ends up in approximately the same place as the current road; while the East Corridor comes down the hill and is redirected over to more closely line up with State Road 101 at the Markland Dam.

“We really have three questions here today,” Phil Kuntz said. “Why is this project being pursued? Why in this location? and Why talk about Markland Pike now?”

Phil Kuntz said that the primary answer to why the project is being pursued are safety issues on Markland Pike currently. He said that the road is heavily traveled, and that a large percentage of county accidents happen on Markland Pike. He said that ideally a county road should be 24-feet wide, with two 12-foot lanes; but there are portions of Markland Pike where the road is much more narrow than that.

“There are steep drop offs along the roadway, and those lead to lots of accidents,” Phil Kuntz said. “It’s not safe for its intended use.”

As for why this location is being discussed, Phil Kuntz said that there is not a good north-south corridor in the county – even after State Road 129 is finished later this year.

“There is a need for the eastern part of the Switzerland County to have a north-south connector, particularly in light of what Kentucky has done by building the road south from the Markland Dam,” Phil Kuntz said.

As to the final question, Phil Kuntz said that the road is being discussed now because of potential economic development opportunities that the county may have in the future, with the development of the Markland Business Park on State Road 156 just east of the Markland Dam. He also noted that a better north-south connector would benefit traffic and customers at Belterra Casino Resort and Spa, and that would mean more people in the county.

“This county really deserves a better connector,” Phil Kuntz said.

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As with any construction, there are many challenges that are faced when trying to decide where the road should go.

A big challenge will be dealing with the elevation changes that the road crews will face; and Phil Kuntz said that the design will try to minimize the amount of cuts and fill that will be needed to make the road safe. As those cuts and fills are reduced, the price of the overall project will also fall.

Another challenge will be whether or not the utility lines in the area of the road will have to be relocated – which would also effect the cost of the entire project. He also said that engineers working to design the roadway, no matter which corridor is used, are wanting to minimize the impact on landowners as much as possible. Environmental issues will also have to be addressed.

The entire project is expected to cover about three miles, and at an average of $3 million per mile; the total estimated cost of the project will be around $9 million.

With the Western Corridor, Phil Kuntz said that engineers tried to keep the new road as close to the original route of Markland Pike as before. With the starting point of both corridors being essentially the same, the engineers told the audience that Markland Pike north of Tapps Ridge Road will not be included in the new project.

“The decision was to focus to the south,” Phil Kuntz said. “How do we get from Tapps Ridge to the river more safely?”

The proposed design of the Western Corridor would be a 24-foot road with a 45 mile per hour speed limit. There would also be a truck lane going up the hill so that regular vehicle traffic could move more safely.

Phil Kuntz said that the new Kentucky connector road has a grade of six percent; and that the grade for the Markland Pike project is much steeper – 6-10 percent.

For comparison, Miller Brick hill outside of Rising Sun is a 10-percent grade.

“What our maximum grades will be on the project will be an issue at design,” Phil Kuntz said.

He also warned the audience that this isn’t a project that will be started tomorrow.

“With federal funds involved, we would have to go through an environmental (ECO) process and a historic review process,” Phil Kuntz said. “That could take 2-3 years; or it could take 5-7 years. This is a long process. We’re just at the beginning right now.”

The federal funds would normally cover about 80-percent of the total cost of the project, with the county covering the other 20-percent. Depending on how long it would take to actually begin the construction, Phil Kuntz said that he anticipates the work being between $9-$11 million, plus land acquisition costs.

The Eastern Corridor would basically follow the power lines down the hill from Tapps Ridge. Phil Kuntz said that the road would be located west of the power lines until it got to the bottom of the hill, where it would cross over to the east side of the power lines so it could more closely match up with State Road 101 coming off of the Markland Dam.

This would be done in coordination with the Indiana Department of Transportation, because of the connection to the state highway.

“We would expect the Eastern Corridor to cost slightly more than the Western Corridor,” Phil Kuntz said.

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Craig Bond said that the county has received “Major Moves” money from the state that totals a little more than $200,000, and that the county has directed those funds to improving Markland Pike.

“That money will be used now to make Markland Pike passable while this whole process of creating the new corridor goes on,” Craig Bond said.

There were numerous comments from the audience, with everyone agreeing that something needs to be done with the roadway to make it more safe. Concerns were also expressed about the large semi trucks that use the road now, and the high rate of speed that some drivers go in using the road.

One concern with the new corridor would be that the county would still have to maintain the current Markland Pike because there are residents who live on it, which would mean more money. There was also a concern that the new road would mean higher taxes.

“Where will the 20-percent come from?” a woman asked.

“Boat Money,” Craig Bond said.

“No increase in taxes?” she asked.

“No. We’ll use boat money,” Craig Bond responded.

“You can guarantee that?” she continued.

“Yes. I can guarantee that if the county builds this road, we’ll use boat money to do it,” Craig Bond said.