Business owners fear effects of continued construction

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The city has plans it says will make the 96th Street and Keystone Parkway intersection safer and less congested. But some business owners in the area fear this project could force them to close their doors.

Residents gathered at City Hall Wednesday night for a public hearing regarding a proposed interchange at this intersection, one of the area’s busiest. The proposed project will remove the existing traffic signals and construct a multi-lane teardrop roundabout on 96th Street, which will run underneath an elevated Keystone Parkway.

Initial construction could begin as early as August or September 2012 and last through 2014. That portion of the project will be done in three phases and is expected to cost just over $50 million, including construction costs, utility relocation and right-of-way acquisitions. The second phase of the project would likely occur several years later and include the construction of roundabouts at Priority Way Drive and Haverstick Road, carrying an estimated total cost of $10.7 million.

About 80,000 drivers travel on this portion of Keystone Parkway per day, according to last week’s presentation, and about 40,000 travel on 96th Street daily. On average, 82 accidents occur annually within the proposed project’s limits.

City Engineer Matt McBride said the project is “critical” to improving safety and traffic flow in the area, especially with work on U.S. 31 scheduled to begin in Carmel in 2014.

“The timing of this project is now with all of the other road construction in this area,” he said.

But Larry Griggers, who owns the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in the area, likened his experience as a nearby restaurant owner to that of the heroine tied to a railroad track in The Perils of Pauline.

“I feel it’s just coming and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

Griggers said that recent construction on Keystone, coupled with a down economy, caused a 20 percent reduction in sales for his business. Another long period of construction, he said, could put that location out of business altogether.

“Our recommendations are, let’s slow this freight train down,” he said, speaking for other business owners near the intersection. “Let’s take a timeout.”

Griggers was one of several business owners who spoke out in opposition of the proposed project.

Rob Butler of the Butler Auto Group said the city is only showing residents the potential positive effects of the project while ignoring the hardships it could bring to area businesses.

“I don’t know if two minutes at a light is going to be worth 200 jobs and four businesses,” he said. “But knowing (Mayor Jim Brainard), it will be more than four businesses.”

But before the city can do anything, it first must determine how it will pay for the project.

The city’s application for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant and federal stimulus dollars was turned down last year, which Brainard admitted was a long shot. At the time of the city’s application, the TIGER grant program had $1.5 billion to award to more than 1,400 applicants seeking about 40 times that amount. Only 51 projects received funding, and Carmel’s was not one of them.

Now the city is pursuing other avenues. Brainard said the city is currently negotiating with the state on ways to fund the project, but he said he could not provide more details about these talks at this time.

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