Deadly Corridor: Turning US 30 into a freeway

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) It is one of the most highly traveled roadways in northern Indiana, second only to Interstate 90. As many as 30,000 vehicles travel US 30 on any given day. More than 30% of those vehicles are trucks. It’s an economic artery for Fort Wayne, Columbia City, Warsaw, Plymouth and dozens of towns and villages in between.

But it is also a deadly corridor. Standing sentry along the stretch of road between Fort Wayne and Columbia City are at least a half dozen crosses representing a tragic untimely death. One of them is in honor of 17-year-old Audrea Gregory, a Carroll High School senior killed in car accident. It happened at O’Day road and US 30 on November 18, 2008.

“I remember we were running late. It was snowy. it snowed all night, so there was a couple of inches on the ground.” Evan Gregory was crammed in a Pontiac Grand Am with five siblings. He was in the passenger seat. Audrea, or “Audie” as she preferred to be called, was driving. They were headed to school. Traveling north, the daunting crossing of four lanes of I-30 stood before them and Carroll High School. “I remember pulling up to the stop sign, and then looking. I didn’t see the truck,” said Ryan. Audie didn’t see it either.

“And then I remember waking up in a ditch,” said Ryan. The crash was a blur. He learned later in the hospital that the car had been broadsided by a pickup truck. Ryan suffered four broken ribs, a broken arm and was covered in glass. His sisters Whitney and Brittney each had a broken pelvis and jaw from banging into each other. Brother Justen escaped with bruises and cuts. But Audie didn’t make it. Adding to the tragedy was the fact that Audie was several months pregnant. Audie’s mother named the unborn baby John. The cross that marks the location and day of Audie’s death, also bears his name.

Nine years later and Evan isn’t angry about his sister’s untimely death, “No there’s no reason to be angry,” he said. “I mean people grieve in different ways. Something like this, you’re going to grieve your entire life. You can grieve in a positive way and learn from something like this, or you can let it eat you up.” But he does hope that something is done to the road to improve safety along the corridor. “There definitely needs to be something done safety wise. I don’t want that to happen to other kids, or a wife or son or daughter,” said Evan.

Mayor Ryan Daniel of Columbia City has watched as city workers deal with death on US 30. “We’ve had multiple staff members that have sadly lost family members,” said Mayor Daniel. Daniel is part of an organization called the US 30 Coalition. The group is comprised of mayors and executives from Fort Wayne, Columbia City, Warsaw, Plymouth and other towns and villages along the entire 100 mile distance between Fort Wayne and Valparaiso. The group was founded two years ago, with the goal of turning US 30 into a limited access freeway.

Mayor Daniel says upgrading the road to a freeway with interchanges and interstate safety measures will dramatically cut down on accidents along the stretch. “When you look at where the accidents happen, rarely do they happen in the middle of a stretch. Usually they happen at an intersection,” said Mayor Daniel. He points to a 2015 study by the Indiana Department of Transportation as proof. INDOT found a freeway system would reduce accidents by 323 a year and save at least four lives.

It would also save time. For example, estimates suggest a trip from Fort Wayne to Chicago would take, on average, 40 minutes less travel time. Cubs fans could be in their seats at Wrigley Field in two and a half hours.

In addition to safety and travel time improvements, a freeway would also mean an economic boost for the region. Travelers taking advantage of the time savings would choose to use US 30, bringing added dollars to businesses along the stretch. If left unchanged, INDOT predicts traffic flow will grow at a moderate pace to 38,300 vehicles a day by 2035. If US 30 were to become a freeway, the number would balloon to more than 81,000. Even with the added cars, the INDOT study shows US 30 with limited access and controlled interchanges would still be safer than its current divided highway status. “We believe that having those on ramps and off ramps creates a safer environment, more traffic creates more business. We think its a win win for everybody,” said Mayor Daniels.

“Any improvements. Making traffic flow better. Making things safer. I think are good for all of us,” said Gary Hively. Hively is the owner of Poptique, a gourmet popcorn shop in Columbia City that sits right next to US 30. He also has two locations in Fort Wayne and makes the drive along US 30 between the two towns multiple times each week. The mention of additional customers stopping in to try one of dozens of popcorn flavors like snickerdoodle or s’mores makes his ears perk up. “I would like to see them all stop. We’ll take everyone,” says Hively with a big smile on his face. According to the INDOT study, that would be a real possibility. Over the course of 20 years, an upgraded US 30 would create an additional 10,572 jobs and raise the region’s gross national product by $952 million. Personal income would increase by $942 million.

But Hively is very keen to the possibility that all those extra dollars could drive on past his business if those off-ramps aren’t perfectly placed. “If they make it difficult, go maybe a mile or two each way, I think it will hurt the businesses. Because people want to be able to get in and get out quick,” said Hively.

Chuck Surack, the owner of Sweetwater Sound located on US 30 in Fort Wayne has similar concerns. “As soon as we hit the the Fort Wayne city limits which is just west of here, I think we should end the freeway and have a chance for those people to come into our community,” said Surack. He isn’t as concerned about Sweetwater, which draws most of its revenue from on-line sales and is a destination for musicians, as he is about some of the other businesses in town. “There’s a lot of great businesses. From the truck stops, to the restaurants, to the hotels, to the zoo. All kinds of things that are going to lose business if we direct traffic away from Fort Wayne,” said Surack. He supports upgrading the highway but warns city leaders not to get ahead of themselves and bypass the boom into a bust.

Mayor Daniel says he is heeding the advice. Columbia City and other municipalities along the route have been holding town halls and informational meetings for months to gather input, ideas and concerns directly from local citizens. He says something will eventually be done about US 30, and rather than having INDOT dictate to local governments a plan hatched in Indianapolis, he wants city leaders along US 30 to lead the discussion with their own plans.

The cost of the project could prove prohibitive. It’s estimated turning US 30 into a freeway between Fort Wayne and Valparaiso would cost over $1 billion. And it’s not even officially being discussed. INDOT says there is no project planned for US 30.

But the Indiana state legislature’s decision to raise road funds by raising the gas tax, and the fact that Governor Holcomb mentioned the idea in his State of the State address, are both encouraging to members of the US 30 Coalition. There is hope that plans for the project will be added to the state’s “to do” list in the coming year.

Evan Gregory says he often thinks about Audie, especially around the holidays when family gets together. He prefers to share warm memories about his sister, rather than linger in the past.

When asked what else he would like to add, he simply wanted to add another word of thanks to the EMTs, firefighters and police officers who were the first on the scene. He owes everything to them, he said. And now in his own way, Evan is giving back. These days, he’s the one lending aid to drivers in accidents. Two years ago he became an officer for the Allen County Sheriff’s Department. “It feels good knowing I can be the one to help now, instead of being the one needing help,”