TERRE HAUTE —
A powerful excavator lifts railroad ties dating back more than a century from the black earth beneath Wabash Avenue. The ties and the earth are then dropped into a waiting dump truck as crews smooth white rock placed into the wide trench created by the excavator.
It’s all part of the latest phase of improving Wabash Avenue, one of the most traveled streets in the city.
The work started around Oct. 1 and is expected to wrap up at the end of November. The goal is to remove rotting, wooden railroad ties from under Wabash between 25th Street and Brown Avenue.
The rotting ties have created a “washboard” effect in the center section of Wabash Avenue for several years. As the ties decompose, asphalt above them shifts, creating an uneven, waving pattern, causing vehicles passing over them to rumble as they travel along.
“Once [the ties] start to rot, they affect the asphalt above,” said Larry Robbins, assistant city engineer. “If you know what you’re looking for, you can step out in the middle of the street and you can see it.”
The current project is Phase II of work on Wabash Avenue, made possible by a payment of more than $2.6 million from the state, which formerly maintained the roadway. The state also gave Terre Haute more than $4 million in engineering credits and also forgave past matching-fund debt from the state while handing responsibility for maintaining the roadway to the city.
Phase I of the work, which rebuilt and repaved a longer section of Wabash from 13th to 25th streets, took place in 2012 at a cost of $1.1 million. The price tag on Phase II — the general contractor for which is Wabash Valley Asphalt — is just less than $600,000, Robbins said. The city cut costs significantly in this phase by using its own professional engineers for the design and inspection work, he said.
“We’ve probably saved $130,000 by having it designed in-house,” Robbins said.
A much shorter Phase III is planned for next year, smoothing the pavement between Brown Avenue and Adams Boulevard, a distance of only three or four blocks.
Driving down business
As happened during Phase I, the construction has, in many cases, been a temporary setback for businesses along the route. Nearly all of the businesses questioned by the Tribune-Star said the roadwork has slowed their customer traffic dramatically.
“All we are seeing is our regulars,” said Tammy Williams, manager of the Subway restaurant at 3206 Wabash Ave. Business is so slow, the restaurant has had to cut back on the hours of some of its employees, she said. “It’s their paychecks being affected,” she said.
Other businesses were also suffering a drop in sales, especially those whose customers are often “impulse” shoppers, meaning they quickly decide to grab a sandwich or stop for gas while it’s convenient and they are thinking about it. At Taco Bell, regular customer Cheryl Akers, a pre-K teacher at nearby Meadows Elementary School, was the lone customer in the restaurant at the start of the lunch hour Wednesday.
“We have to drive in the back way,” Akers said, describing the maze of roads necessary to get to any businesses on the north side of Wabash, for which access is blocked from Wabash during the construction. This has diverted a lot of traffic to Schaal Avenue, a residential road one block north, she said.
“It’s a little scary to see how much traffic is on Schaal Avenue,” Akers said.
During the roadwork, the city has kept open a single lane of traffic for drivers headed east. All west-bound traffic is being diverted to the north, in theory to Locust Street, but some motorists are clearly taking Schaal instead.
Businesses on the south side of Wabash are probably less affected by the construction than those on the north because east-bound drivers still have easy access to their parking lots. But the roadwork was still having an effect.
“Anytime you have restricted access to your front door, it’s not favorable,” said Robb Crick, manager of The Cricket Box, a furniture store and among the largest businesses in the affected area. However, Crick said he appreciates that the workers seem to be moving quickly to get the job done.
“It seems like a pretty good pace,” Crick said, adding that the business is offering some additional specials and clearance items, in part, because of the additional effort it may take customers to get to the store.
McDonald’s at 3032 Wabash Ave. is also offering specials to attract customers during the work. The restaurant is offering a discounted “construction meal” to customers who can maneuver their way there.
Still, if customers are determined, they can manage. Mary Ann Martin of Jasonville made a special effort to take a seat at The Family Table restaurant at 2525 Wabash Ave.
“I love the Greek spaghetti,” she said with a hot plate of the dish in front of her. She was worried the restaurant might be closed when she saw the construction, she said.
“I’m really glad it’s open,” she said. “I was determined to come here.”
Still, Martin may be the exception. She, and several employees of the restaurant, said business was slow thanks to the construction taking place outside.
Other “impulse” businesses, such as the BP at Wabash and Brown Boulevard, were also seeing a decline in sales. East-bound traffic has to make a left-hand turn at Brown and then make a U-turn to get to the gas station, said “Dimple,” the cashier. “This has affected us a lot,” she said. “I understand the need to protect public safety” by closing access from Wabash, she said. “But I hope this work gets done fast.”
It’s our problem, now
An undated, but clearly very old, map hanging on the wall of the city’s Department of Engineering in City Hall shows where interurban rail lines once existed in Terre Haute. All of those lines were constructed about the same time, so it’s not surprising all of the old wooden ties are starting to rot at about the same time, Robbins said.
Some people believed old steel rails were what caused the problem with the streets, Robbins said. But that’s not the case. The wooden ties were the problem. The rails were probably removed before World War I and reused or recycled. The wooden ties were left in the ground to become “someone else’s problem,” he said.
Those problems are now here. Other interurban lines were on Seventh Street south of Poplar and North 13th Street up to about 12 Points, according to the map. Those roadways are showing the same problem, the “washboard” effect, Robbins said. Eventually, those will need to be tackled as well, he said.
When Phase II is finished next month, Wabash Avenue will be much smoother between 25th and Brown. The middle of the street is being completely rebuilt while the outer lanes will be “milled and filled,” a much quicker and easier process. All the while, east-bound traffic will continue to have access to one lane on Wabash, Robbins said.
Another improvement resulting from the work involves drainage, especially in front of the Burger King restaurant at 3087 Wabash Ave., an area that frequently floods. The drainage system there has needed repaired for many years, but the state, when it controlled the roadway, didn’t take on the project. During this work, that problem has been solved, Robbins noted.
“It’s something we’ve been needing to do for a few years now,” Robbins said. “We thought it made perfect sense to take care of it while we were out there.”
As for the business disruptions along Wabash, unfortunately they are unavoidable when something like this takes place. In the end, however, the roadway will be much improved, Robbins said. “We just ask them to bear with us.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.