More Bridge Worries for Northwest Indiana
Two public meetings will be held Tuesday, February 9 at the East Chicago Central High School auditorium, 1100 West Columbus Drive. Sessions will be held beginning at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. Interested citizens unable to attend can submit suggestions, concerns or ideas to INDOT LaPorte District Communications at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315 E. Boyd Blvd., LaPorte, IN 46350.
The Cline Avenue bridge winds its way through the northern most sections of Hammond and East Chicago. About 30,000 vehicles used it daily for quick access to the Chicago Skyway, but the bridge closed to traffic abruptly in November.
Just 25 years after being built, it's been declared unsafe.
This is a bridge with a history of trouble. During construction of the bridge in the early 80s, a portion of the 90-foot high structure collapsed, killing several workers. State officials, including Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, didn't want to see that happen again.
DANIELS: I'm just so glad that I didn't have to come here on the heals of a tragedy. We've seen that happen. None of use likes the decision that was made but public safety is not something we compromise on.
Mike Reed, the Indiana Department of Transportation's top official, agreed.
REED: This was a safety issue that we weren't going to tolerate. There was too much risk.
State bridge inspectors found recently that the concrete bridge's steel rods were corroding faster than expected, and chucks of concrete had large cracks. Officials thought about limiting the amount of traffic on the bridge, which handled large trucks hauling thousands of pounds of steel coils, but that wouldn't have been enough to keep it safe.
Bill Meeks is director of technical service director with INDOT.
MEEKS: Two years ago, we knew that there were problems and we had actually already programmed a project for a bridge rehabilitation to be done in the next year or two from now. But we determined that the bridge couldn't go that far.
The abrupt closing of the bridge is forcing thousands of heavy industrial vehicles to used side streets and other arteries to get to and from the factories near the lake shore. That's causing additional wear and tear on the streets. Some companies have resorted to hiring off-duty police officers to help direct traffic into their facilities.
Adrian Santos, a city councilman in East Chicago, says the state needs to get moving on a fix.
SANTOS: You should see the traffic in the city of East Chicago. It's tremendous. We need Cline Avenue. They need to start knocking it down and doing what they are going to do right away.
The bridge also provided quick access for those heading to the casinos in East Chicago and Gary and attendance is down.
A gaming official with Gary's Majestic Star Casino told a state panel last month that the company had to lay off 40 employees as a direct result of lost business. Lost business also means lost revenue for the state, to the tune of $10 million, according to the gaming official.
And, late last week, the powerful Northwest Indiana Building and Trades Council, with 20,000 members, passed a resolution calling for the rebuilding of the Bridge, calling it “vital” to the area's economic welfare. Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. is worried about both the economic impact and increased traffic.
MCDERMOTT: INDOT's plan to reroute traffic through the neighborhoods is unacceptable in the long run. We understand right now we have to do this but in the long run this is unacceptable. And McDermott is also worried about another troubled bridge in his city.
Just three miles south of the now closed Cline Avenue Bridge is the Nine Span Bridge that some fear is at risk of closing as well.
MCDERMOTT: Because that bridge is a heck of a lot older than the Cline Avenue Bridge. If we have both of them down at the same time, it will be a disaster for traffic in Northwest Indiana.
Built in the 1930s, the Nine-Span bridge is a rusty-green hulk of steel that goes over a huge rail yard. The bridge handles thousands of cars, trucks and buses every day.
INDOT was planning to begin building a replacement for the old bridge in two years because it's nearing its life expectancy.But Indot's Bill Meeks says the bridge is safe enough to last several more years if need be.
MEEKS: I do know that we've taken action over the last few years to ensure that the bridge can go and continue to carry traffic until it is determined what will be replacing it.
Folks here are hoping that's true.