Our transportation network is critical to the growth and development of the region. Over the years, community leaders have identified top transportation priorities then marshaled the resources to make those projects happen.
Construction of projects like the Indiana Toll Road, US 31, US 20, SR 23 and SR 331/Capital Avenue have all helped better connect our local communities and have especially helped our businesses move goods and services in and out of our region.
Because of the high costs often associated with the design, planning, right-of-way acquisition, and construction, many of those projects have spanned long periods of time from the introduction of the concept to the final construction. For example, Capital Avenue was on the drawing board from about fifty years. US 31 has been a priority for even longer.
In the last decade, major construction projects have been completed on US 31 between South Bend and Indianapolis, cutting significant time off a trip to the Capital City and making it much safer. Improvements on six stop-lighted intersections, two railroad crossings, one hundred intersections and two hundred driveways remain on the wish list.
In the 1950’s, work began on the US 31 Bypass around South Bend. In 1967, plans were made to extend US 31 north from the State line to I-94. Leaders saw the road as a vital artery to the region and an important business connection, connecting two busy Interstate Highways and opening up new development opportunities in the corridor.
In the early 1970’s that construction began and portions of the roadway moved forward until it was interrupted in the late 1990’s by a rare butterfly. The proposed roadway cut through an area that was the habitat of this endangered species. Construction was halted near Napier Avenue in Benton Harbor.
For close to twenty years, construction of the final phases, connecting the road way to I-94, has been in limbo. Concerns over the butterfly habitat and the lack of adequate funding left the road’s future in jeopardy. In the meantime, businesses and consumers have longed for the completion of this important improvement.
Earlier this month, Michigan announced plans to move the project forward. The final phase of the U.S. 31 corridor project in Berrien County has been added to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) five-year plan. That plan includes an initial appropriation to finish right of way work for the corridor.
The completion of the original plan won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that for the first time in several decades, it’s on the priority list and back on the top of minds of Legislative leaders from across Michigan thanks to the efforts of State Representative Al Pscholka, MDOT Director Kirk Steudle, and Michigan Governor Snyder.
The project will be broken into three phases, including the connection of US 31 to I-94, the replacing of the interchange at downtown Benton Harbor, and the resurrecting of 10 miles of I-94 in this area. The project is estimated to cost $92 million.
Though the project sits across the state line, it is vital to the South Bend area. Southwest Lower Michigan boasts numerous tourist destinations and have become popular get-a-ways for Indiana residents. And businesses see the I-94 connection as a key connection to important markets like Chicago, Detroit, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
Our region is growing, and that includes the north part of the region in Cass and Berrien Counties. The construction of this final link will position the region to better take advantage of future development opportunities.
Jeff Rea is president and chief executive officer of the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce.