By Pam Robinson
New Harmony’s Ribeyre Gym was packed on Saturday for the public forum to discuss the future of the closed New Harmony Bridge. The forum was co-hosted by Indiana State Representative Wendy McNamara and Indiana State Senator Jim Tomes. Also on hand to contribute to the discussion were Rusty Fowler with the Indiana Department of Transportation, or INDOT, and Illinois State Representative David Reis.
From the beginning of the discussion, officials made clear they held no interest in repairing the closed New Harmony Bridge. Repeatedly, results were cited from a recent engineering inspection of the bridge: the bridge cannot support its own weight, much less that of vehicles.
Instead, an offer was placed on the table: INDOT will provide a maximum of $10 million toward the building of a new bridge, a five- to seven- year project estimated to cost between $20 and $40 million, on the condition local government assumes ownership of the bridge.
The State of Indiana doesn’t want ownership, and the State of Illinois remains noncommittal about ownership. That leaves the government units of Posey County, White County (Ill.) and New Harmony to take control of the bridge.
According to officials, then and only then, will the federal government even consider providing some kind of funding, including grants, for the New Harmony Bridge.
The offer recalls another plan presented to the Posey County Commissioners in 2011 to take ownership of the bridge. The county then deemed it could not accept the offer.
Since its completion in 1930, the New Harmony Bridge has had a troubled history as outlined in a handout distributed by state officials. As early as 1937, the Indiana General Assembly enacted legislation authorizing INDOT to purchase the bridge, but the transfer to the state never occurred. Instead, from 1930 through 1941, several private corporations owned and operated the bridge.
In 1941, an Act of Congress established the White County Bridge Commission and thus subject to Congressional oversight. The same Act authorized bonds to purchase, with transfer to Indiana, Illinois or a joint commission when the bonds were paid off. Yet, the Act contemplated, rather than required, transfer of the bridge and the dissolution of the White County Bridge Commission when the bonds were paid off. So the White County Bridge Commission remains the owner in control of the bridge.
Since the turn of the century, engineering inspection reports have pointed out the deterioration of the bridge. For example, during the summer of 2001, INDOT commissioned an engineering inspection report that expressed the following opinion: “the bridge is near the end of its useful life, unless significant repairs are made . . .” The report suggests an estimated cost of $15-20 million to sustain and replace the bridge for 10 years.
On September 25, 2007, the bridge was closed due to structural concerns and reopened on April 30, 2008, after the White County Bridge Commission made repairs.
The engineering inspection released this year in late April declared the bridge unsafe for travel and prompted the White County Bridge Commission to close the bridge on May 29.
Near the end of the hour-and-a-half discussion on Saturday, INDOT representative Rusty Fowler commented that the next step is for the public to ask, “Is the bridge important?” If so, he stressed, local options for funding should be pursued. He said that, with a bridge downstream and upstream of New Harmony, it doesn’t make sense for the state to own the New Harmony Bridge.
By Pam Robinson
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