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Residents voice displeasure over east-west connector road

The Commissioners/Council Room at the Harrison County Government Center room was full Monday morning, with the audience spilling into the hallway, as residents in the southern part of the county gathered to learn more about the possibility of the state building a new road near their homes. Many of the people there oppose the idea to extend S.R. 11 to the west to S.R. 135.

Before the crowd spoke, County Commissioner Charlie Crawford read a statement that took nine minutes to complete.

“This project was identified as an important project in a 2003 long-range transportation plan,” Crawford said to start his opening comments. “This project was again identified as an important project on the 2040 long-range transportation plan adopted in 2019. Appendix C … details the public outreach, related to the 2040 long-range transportation plan. Both plans, as well as other documents, are and have been available on Harrison County’s website.”

Crawford’s statement continued and was followed by more than a dozen residents, most of whom spoke in opposition of the Indiana Dept. of Transportation relinquishing three sections of state roads to the county with the agreement to build a new state road, possibly along the current path of Watson Road.

“We the people, who you represent, don’t agree with the way this deal went down, the lack of communication and the rush to sign this agreement,” said resident Angela Schmelz.

Besides saying the project had been placed online and listed as a priority for the county, the commissioners also said there were public meetings and public input was sought regarding the newest long-range transportation plan. An exact number of the people who participated during those hearings was not able during Monday’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

Commissioner Jim Heitkemper said the meetings were held at different times and days to allow a variety of people to attend.

Larry Day, who spoke at the last meeting in support of the project, said he stood by his comments made then. He said the project would be good for public safety, adding that people have made sacrifices in the past, citing the creation of S.R. 135 and Interstate 64.

Most who spoke in opposition said they thought this decision came as a surprise. A few comments focused on the idea that the road wouldn’t be too highly used.

INDOT would likely estimate how much traffic the road would see through a feasibility study.

“If you all want to get on base and do something for the community, build the interstate from (I-265) on the Kentucky side, come up over the hill where you can service these people with a good idea,” said Rick Withers. “This is not a good idea.”

As part of the relinquish agreement signed last month, which doesn’t go into effect until later this year, the county will take over 32 miles of road with portions of state roads 111, 11 and 337, and be responsible for eight bridges.

Crawford said the additional mileage will be approximately 4% more for the county to cover.

“Harrison County receives funding for roads from the state through gas taxes and registration fees,” he said. “The funding distribution is based largely on road mileage, so the funding Harrison County receives will increase.”

Former county highway engineer Kevin Russel, who brought this agreement to the commissioners last month, said a lot of the concerns residents have would be heard at upcoming hearings held by INDOT.

Many residents urged the commissioners to rescind the agreement anyway.

Commissioner Kenny Saulman said that wouldn’t happen during the meeting; however, the commissioners agreed to take the comments from the public under advisement and discuss the topic with INDOT.

“We would have to advertise,” Saulman said.

Harrison County Councilman Gary Byrne, who was at Monday’s meeting, said the commissioners didn’t advertise they were going to vote to decide if they would enter into the agreement or not.

“I am disappointed in how the commissioners handled this,” he said at the meeting.

The project would be fully funded by INDOT, including any unexpected and over-budget costs. It’s been estimated to come with a $35 million price tag. This money can only be used for this project, if it does get built.

Saulman said there has been things he and his fellow commissioners have tried to do in the county but have failed because county funds aren’t getting spent.

“We have over $19 million available right now that the county has money to spend, and we have roads we would really like to work on in this county,” he said.

Since 2019, the commissioners have approved additional funding requests to make infrastructure improvements in Lanesville, Milltown and New Salisbury. The two proposed sewer projects in Lanesville and New Salisbury, along with a wastewater treatment project in Milltown, have yet to get any county funding from the Harrison County Council. Byrne and at least three other council members have denied those requests.

Russel recommended the commissioners gather contact information for all residents in the area so they could be kept informed about the process as it moves forward.

Crawford ended the nearly two-hour discussion by thanking everyone who showed up and sharing their views.

Russel said most of the issues and concerns brought up by residents would be good to tell INDOT as the process to determine if a road should be built continues. He added INDOT could decide the best option is to do nothing and take back the 32 miles of road that the commissioners have agreed to take over.

In other business, the commissioners approved a $190,000 request from the county’s parks department and a request from the county sheriff. Both will likely be on the agenda for Monday’s Harrison County Council meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the government center.

The next board of commissioners’ meeting will be Monday, March 16, at 7 p.m.