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INDOT deputy commissioner responds to decision to halt Indiana 245 project at Santa Claus

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By RUSSELL FOWLER, INDOT Vincennes District Deputy Commissioner

As deputy commissioner for the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Vincennes District, I recently made the difficult decision to end construction on the Indiana 245 project in Spencer County.

Although we had supported this project for over 10 years and are committed to providing road construction improvement where needed, I believe shutting down the project at this time is in the best interest of the taxpayers of Indiana. This is due to pending litigation. If the project were to continue, the pending lawsuit could limit and delay construction indefinitely costing the state of Indiana considerable time and resources.

INDOT authorized the Indiana 245 project in 1996. The purpose of the project was to provide road reconstruction and two structure replacements to improve the condition of the road. The project required closure of a 3.2-mile stretch of Indiana 245 for a total of up to eighteen months; however, we phased the closure to ensure that the entire 3.2-mile stretch would not all be closed at one time. We also planned to provide detour routes so that we could cost-effectively maintain traffic during construction of the project.

INDOT’s Vincennes District consulted with local officials to establish the most appropriate local detour routes. This was one of the many efforts we made to ensure that the free flow of traffic would not be stopped at any time during this project.

We awarded the project late in 2009, and construction began Jan. 10, 2010. Early in the life of the project, we made several efforts to update the community on the project and request comments.

This included a meeting held Feb. 24, 2010. At this meeting, INDOT representatives discussed the project schedule and the planned detour routes. We made it clear during the meeting that we would ensure local access was available throughout the project. We also agreed to provide extra signs on the contract to reinforce local business accessibility.

In response to comments made at the meeting, INDOT researched the cost of keeping Indiana 245 open to traffic during construction; however, based on the research, we determined that keeping the road open was cost prohibitive due to limited available rights-of-way, large grade differences and environmental concerns.

In April of 2010, two local business owners filed a lawsuit against INDOT requesting that the court prohibit us from closing Indiana 245. I advised local officials at that time that we may not be able to complete the project without closing the road.

The Spencer County Circuit Court issued a preliminary injunction June 14, 2010, prohibiting INDOT from closing the road. This was the day before we planned to close the road on the northern section for bridge replacement.

After the court’s decision, we continued to work with the plaintiffs in the suit to try to reach an acceptable compromise. We rephased construction of the bridge so that the northern closure would not occur until after Labor Day and would be open before Memorial Day, subject to weather impacts.

We also offered to install additional direction signs to affected businesses as requested. I believed that an agreement with the plaintiffs had been reached at that point and the project could move forward; however, the plaintiffs made additional demands in July and August of 2010.

These demands included additional compensation, plaintiff confidentiality, court supervision of the contract, renegotiation of property access, which INDOT had already previously purchased for the project, and a hard timeline on the bridge closure.

We determined that these demands were unreasonable and unacceptable and could lead to huge costs to the taxpayers.

We continued to evaluate the project; however, the contractor was limited in the work that it could perform without the closure. Furthermore, we continued to incur costs and penalties from the contractor even though the contractor could perform only minimal work.  

As a result of these limitations and costs, we communicated to the plaintiffs’ counsel that INDOT would terminate the project by Aug. 27, 2010, if INDOT and the plaintiffs could not reach an agreement on moving forward.

Because the plaintiffs did not offer a proposal that we believed was in the best interest of the state, we terminated the contract Aug. 27, 2010, and began to close all work on the project.

I regret that we had to shut down work on the Indiana 245 project. The community had expressed support for the project, and I believe it would have provided needed improvements to the road. In this case, we could not have proceeded with the contract and complied with the court’s order without costing the taxpayers considerable resources.

We also could not have complied with the plaintiffs’ demands without the same detrimental results. As a result, we cannot in good conscience proceed with the project unless and until the court allows INDOT to close the road or the plaintiffs offer a reasonable solution.

Should the pending legal issues be resolved, we will re-evaluate the project; however, we will do so in the context of other needs for road projects throughout the state. We are in the process of putting Indiana 245 in the same condition it was in before the contractor started the work. We also will continue to provide routine maintenance of the road to ensure the safety of the traveling public.

INDOT has always had a good working relationship with Spencer County and will continue to do so. We look forward to the opening of the new four-lane U.S. 231 in the spring of 2011.