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MACOG studying how to meet future infrastructure needs

ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. -- With the explosive growth in and around Elkhart, including the rebirth of the RV industry, there are growing concerns the county's infrastructure may not be able to handle all the traffic.

US 20 east of Elkhart is busy on a good day and on bad days it can be aggravating.

"There is a lot of truck traffic and it does delay some things," driver Phil Wright said.

Wright commutes from Elkhart to Middlebury for work every day. He says one of the biggest problems is where the highway narrows from five lanes to just two near State Road 15.

"It was nice when they widened up US 20 to 15 and I'm just hoping that they're able to do the rest," Wright said.

Stacy Bontrager owns the Getaway Tanning Salon in Middlebury.

While he welcomes the area's economic rebound since the great recession, and the resurgence of the RV industry, there are some downsides.

"A lot more people coming in from Elkhart, South Bend, Goshen and surrounding areas to work here in Middlebury so we have a lot of people moving to the area or just commuting to the area so a lot more car traffic," Bontrager said.

"You're seeing significant congestion issues because that roadway isn't designed to handle the level of traffic that's on it today," said James Turnwald, the Executive Director of the Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG),

Turnwald's group oversees planning for the four county region covering Elkhart, St. Joseph, Kosciusko and Marshall counties.

He says Elkhart County's current population of about 205,000 is expected to add about 30,000 more people in the next two decades.

"All four of our counties are expected to grow but the majority of that growth actually happens in Elkhart County," Turnwald said.

The existing infrastructure can't really handle the growth.

One solution is to get more people out of their cars and onto mass transit.

Right now MACOG's Interurban Trolley provides about 400,000 trips per year, but its routes don't cover some of the busiest manufacturing sites.

"One of the weaknesses of the current transit system is that we do not provide service to Bristol or Middlebury and both of those communities have seen explosive growth in the RV industry," Turnwald said.

"You could get from home to the mall really well but you can not necessarily get from your home to a job on public transportation," said Mark Dobson, the President of the Elkhart Economic Development Corporation.

Dobson wants improvements made as soon as possible so bus routes and roads match up with changing real world needs.

"As we continue to grow there's going to be more pressure on these communities like the Middleburys, the Bristols, the Nappanees where they've traditionally been serviced by 2 lane roads and they need to be four or five lane facilities," Dobson said. "Indiana's infrastructure as a whole is good-it needs to be great."

INDOT is studying the possible expansion of US 20 to five lanes east of Elkhart but there is no timetable for it to happen.

Construction work and all those orange cones bring their own pains.

"It's going to cause congestion until its actually widened, which is a downside to everything I guess," Wright said.

MACOG is about to embark on a yearlong project to update its long range plan and determine how the interurban trolley and various roads can be improved to handle the expected increases in population and traffic.

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