State wants ‘best option’ for Dale-area rest stopsFebruary 14, 2019
By ALLEN LAMAN
DALE — A little more than a month after the closing of two Dale area rest stops was announced and sparked uproar across the region, Indiana Department of Transportation officials are taking another look at the sites to redetermine their future.
Jason Tiller, INDOT’s Southwest Indiana communications director, explained that nothing is off the table at this time, meaning the east- and westbound Nancy Hanks rest areas could still be shut down.
But after hearing from the state legislature and members of the public, INDOT will keep the rest stops running until a final plan of action is set.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re looking at options to keep them open or for reasons to close them at this point,” Tiller said in a Wednesday phone interview. “We’re doing a further evaluation and seeing what the best option is and how we can best serve the public in this situation.”
The Herald reported last month that INDOT planned to close rest stops near Dale by the end of February due to low usage. According to numbers from INDOT, an average of about 1,300 vehicles visit the two sites per day — about 8 percent of the traffic that uses the interstate they serve. The agency also estimated the two facilities would need about $2 million in repairs.
Based on those two factors, INDOT earlier decided to close the facilities and direct funds to other state rest areas.
Public outcry subsequently sparked online, and state legislators contacted INDOT and questioned how it could help the agency. State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, told The Herald late last month that after meeting with INDOT, the agency decided to not close the rest areas until it improves and expands the ones located on the state’s perimeter. He said INDOT would not keep the rest stops open indefinitely, though.
“The public’s concerns didn’t fall on deaf ears,” Tiller said. “So we want, as a good showing of faith to our legislators and the general public, we want to make sure that we do our due diligence on this project.”
Tiller did not know a timeline moving forward or what the next study would entail.
State Rep. Stephen Bartels, R-Eckerty, recently penned a letter to the public that mentioned how he would like to schedule a public forum with INDOT so citizens can “express their concerns and for a submission of new ideas to be taken into account before a permanent decision is made.”
He was as surprised as anyone when he heard the stops were slated to close, and he criticized INDOT for not communicating with state legislaors before initially announcing their termination last month.
“That’s one of the negatives of a lot of state agencies,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview, referring to communication. “This couldn’t have been a spur of the moment thought, so why couldn’t they say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this, what’s the public opinion? What are options?’”
He added: “They forget sometimes that they work for the people. It’s not just an agency that does whatever they want to a degree, and they kind of sometimes forget that part.”
He wants to see the sites remain open, but if nothing else, he’d like to see a parking lot built for trucks on state-owned property at a nearby off ramp. Truckers are required to take breaks during their hauls.
The closest Indiana rest areas to the Nancy Hanks locations include the Black River Welcome Center in New Harmony, 52 miles to the west, and the Lanesville Welcome Center in Georgetown, 56 miles to the east.
When asked about the possibility of a forum, Tiller said he was not aware of anyone from Bartels office reaching out to INDOT to plan one, but did say the two parties would work together to schedule it. Bartels said he expressed his interest in a forum to INDOT in a meeting in his office, but he has not received a response.
Earlier in his phone call with The Herald, Tiller spoke on the importance of informing the public as to why INDOT makes certain decisions.
“We want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them,” he said. “I understand a lot of times the things that we do or the way we do things isn’t always popular. And a lot of people don’t always feel as though the things that we’re doing make sense, so it’s our goal when we have situations like this, to listen to what the public is saying and hear their concerns, and if there’s something we feel like we can explain, something that we feel as though we can help educate the public about, then we will.”
He concluded: “And if they have good points ... that’s something we definitely take into consideration and look at.”
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