By Dave Pearce / Portions courtesy of the Evansville Courier
This will be some Memorial Day for residents of the New Harmony area.
As if the closing of
New Harmony School was not enough of a blow to the Town of New Harmony, in an emergency meeting Sunday night, the White County (Ill.) Bridge Commission members voted to close the aging span at noon May 29 — the day after Memorial Day.
“It is very disappointing,” New Harmony Town Council President David Campbell said on Monday morning. “Yes, it will restrict access to New Harmony from that direction but New Harmony will always be what New Harmony is. It is a quiet place where people come to reflect. The lack of a bridge is not going to change what New Harmony is.”
Campbell said the announcement does not exhaust all possible options to keep the bridge open and he is hopeful that something can be done. However, since the engineering study has come back, it appears that most of the possibilities have been exhausted.
Campbell acknowledged the tireless work of former University of Southern Indiana President David Rice in his attempts to keep the bridge open.
But Bridge Commission member Jim Clark said the closure is in response to the results of an April 29 inspection of the bridge by nine engineers. Sunday night’s meeting was attended by members Jim Clark and David Rice. Spud Egbert was not able to attend.
New Harmony School’s final graduation exercises will be held on Thursday evening, May 24, just five days before the closing of the bridge.
“They found problems with the crossbeams that connect with the outside girders,” Clark said. “They have deteriorated more than we thought.” The inspection was carried out by four engineers from the Indiana Department of Transportation, one from the Illinois DOT, two federal inspectors and two engineers from the bridge commission.
The engineers began their inspection on the approach to the bridge from the Indiana side. The “arms-length” inspection was carried out from a bucket truck. Inspectors used chipping hammers to remove rust and corrosion to inspect the steel beams. “There are problems all along the bridge,” Clark said. “Overall, the cost to make repairs was more than we could imagine.”
One of Clark’s biggest concerns is the possibility the commission could be sued if the bridge fails and someone is injured or killed.
“Some have been very bullheaded about closing the bridge,” Clark said. “The fact is, with the information we have been provided about the condition of the bridge, we could be sued through errors and omissions.”
Rice, chairman of the commission, said engineers have estimated the bridge needs about $8.4 million in repairs. Clark said he believes the bridge could be made safe with about $2 million in repairs.
“We could put the understructure in good condition and it would last a few years,” Clark said. “However, we would still have an old bridge that is substandard in width, with an old deck that is rotting.”
The bridge deck is extremely rough and cannot be made smoother by milling, Clark said. He says the reinforcement bars in the deck are too close to the surface to allow milling. There is currently a 25 mph speed limit on the bridge, and vehicles are asked to keep a 300-foot separation.
The commission chose not to close the bridge immediately in order to notify state and local agencies of closure.
“First, we need time to get the signs up on both sides of the river,” Clark said. “Next, we have to notify all of the area ambulance services and fire departments that the bridge is no longer available.”
Clark added that he hopes an agreement can be made with the White County Ambulance service to handle emergency calls on Ribeyre Island, which is in Posey County, Ind., but only accessible through White County, Ill.
The New Harmony Bridge opened to traffic in 1930. In 1941, Congress established the three-member bridge commission and handed it control of the bridge.
In 1998, Congress eliminated the mechanism that allows for appointments to the commission. If the current members were to quit or die, the bridge would have to close because there would be no one left to oversee its operation.
On September 25, 2007, the bridge was closed after inspectors found a crack in a support pier on the west side of the bridge. The closure lasted 8 months, reopening in April 2008.
The four-span bridge links Illinois Route 14 in White County to Indiana 66 in Posey County. The deck is only 20 feet wide with a 36-ton load limit. Farmers, farm service companies, oil producers and Illinois residents commuting to jobs in Evansville routinely use the bridge.
When the bridge closes, travelers crossing the Wabash River will be forced to use either the Interstate 64 bridge south of Grayville or the bridge that links Illinois Route 141 to Indiana 62 west of Mount Vernon, Ind.