Just outside West Terre Haute on Tuesday morning, a young woman walked toward Terre Haute along U.S. 150 as cars and trucks sped past her.
She walked just a few feet from traffic. That’s because there’s almost no shoulder area between the edge of the highway and the steel roadside barriers. “The Grade,” the 1.1-mile stretch of roadway between the two towns, is risky for the numerous people who walk or bicycle to their destinations.
At that same moment Tuesday, construction continued on a remedy to the longtime hazard.
It’s a success story, a community-wide effort that will provide safety, as well as an economic boost and recreational opportunities.
Anyone who’s driven between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute since late August has undoubtedly noticed the early-stage progress on a new pedestrian walkway, adjacent to the south side of the U.S. 150 pavement.
Once it’s finished in October 2021, that young woman and other pedestrians or bike riders will be able to trek to and from West T and the Haute without feeling the air gusts of SUVs and pickups that motor by at an average rate of 16,000 vehicles a day, according to 2018 figures from the West Central Indiana Economic Development District.
This solution to that decades-old problem alone validates the project’s $6.2-million cost.
The walkway opens up other benefits, too.
It unlocks a virtual dead-end to the popular National Road Heritage Trail, which winds for 30 miles through eastern and central Vigo County and across the Wabash River before reaching the no-room-to-safely-walk-or-bike segment of U.S. 150. Thanks to the walkway, the Heritage Trail system could someday connect Vigo County’s four college campuses. Heritage Trail also can now extend to Illinois and link with burgeoning trail systems in Vermillion, Parke and Sullivan counties.
And, the walkway makes the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area and its Wabashiki Trail more accessible. The new pedestrian bridge will run alongside the 2,700-acre wetlands, which was set aside by the state of Indiana in 2010. The numbers of hunters, anglers, bird-watchers, hikers, runners and picnickers using Wabashiki’s amenities will grow.
Terre Haute and West Terre Haute could become a destination for groups of cyclists, runners and outdoors enthusiasts, just like other Midwestern towns that anchor long-running trail systems.
Constructing the walkway on the slope between the highway and wetlands requires some architectural finesse.
Three-hundred steel pilings are being driven 30 to 60 feet deep into the soil to support the walkway, explained Ben Leege, the Indiana Department of Transportation’s project engineer. Those 12-inch-diameter pilings are then filled with concrete and a strand of rebar, then lopped off at a height matching the others. Steel I-beams atop the pilings add more support.
The actual walkway will consist of composite decking boards, fabricated from multiple materials, and timber wood railings.
Crews laid rip-rap rock along the slope to further secure the base of the highway.
“We don’t have a ton of excavation or ground disturbance on this project,” Leebe said Tuesday of the work that involves INDOT and contractor Beaty Construction teams. “We’re actually building on what’s already here.”
Workers did remove 1.7 acres of trees to clear space for the walkway, though. They’ll plant 4.5 acres of trees near the village of Dresser to help offset the environmental loss of the original tree cover, Leege said.
The clearing of the roadside trees has opened a view of the Wabashiki wetlands and its diverse wildlife. Once completed, folks using the walkway can see Wabashiki’s vastness from an overlook on the path.
“It really is a beautiful little piece of land out here, eagles flying and all of that,” Leege said.
West Terre Haute’s walkway is the first pedestrian bridge of Leege’s engineering career. He didn’t see many such bridges while growing up in Chicago’s northern suburbs, or while studying at Bradley University in Peoria. He did spend a year on railway construction projects and helped engineer timber bridges over creeks in South Dakota, before joining INDOT six years ago. His work in the Terre Haute area began with the Indiana 641 bypass project.
Building the walkway is “very similar to building a highway bridge,” Leege said. “It’s just designed for people instead of semis.”
People are expected to begin walking across the bridge next October. Work will continue through suitable weather this winter, with temporary daytime lane restrictions, before construction resumes in full next spring, said Debbie Calder, INDOT communications director.
The project’s start this year got delayed from June until August, while utility work was completed, Leege said. A cost-reduction plan was also formed during the summer and should result in “hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings,” Leege added.
Funding for the project were secured in 2018, with the federal and state governments covering 80% of the cost, with the county picking up the remaining 20%. A long list of backers began advocating and devising the project more than a decade ago, drawing in various county officials, the West Central Economic Development District, the Wabash Valley Riverscape group, state Sen. Jon Ford, the Sisters of Providence and others.
I wrote a column about the need for a safe pedestrian pathway in the summer of 2017 after hearing two different women, in unrelated settings, cite its necessity.
Sister of Providence Dorothy Rasche was running the congregation’s Connecting Link outlet in West Terre Haute, helping guide needy residents to various social services. When I asked about the community’s needs, Sister Dorothy emphatically told me, “We still need that connector or walkway, whatever you call it, and we need it now.”
Two days later at a meeting of the state Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission at the Vigo County Annex, Commissioner Judy Anderson told the commission about the walkway’s importance. “I’m from that side of the river,” Anderson said, “and it’s always been a concern of mine.”
Leege understands it now, too, especially after working long hours on the walkway, as well as on the nearby Dreiser and Dresser Memorial bridges over the Wabash.
“Driving into West Terre Haute at 2 o’clock in the morning, when it’s pitch black out, you’d see people walking” on the U.S. 150 grade, Leege said. “The longer I’m out here, I’m seeing the need more and more.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]