By Lois Mittino Gray
About 75 concerned citizens from both sides of the Wabash River attended a meeting Wednesday evening in the Granary to explore four options for the local bridge spanning both states which has been closed since May 2012. After discussion and listening to an engineer’s report, the group agreed to form a committee and elect leaders at their next meeting with the objective of exploring ways to turn the bridge over to a public entity, thus making it eligible for public grants to repair and reopen it.
Illinois farmer Dave Brown opened the meeting by asking the audience “what do we want and what do we need for our bridge? If it is a need, it must be driven by us”.
He outlined four possible options for the bridge. Option one is to refurbish the bridge as it existed before with two lanes of traffic and a 36,000 pound weight limit. Option two is to make it a one lane bridge with a lower weight limit for cars and small trucks. Option three is to make it a pedestrian only walking bridge and option four is to build an entirely new structure.
“We also need non-traditional thinking on how to finance what we choose”, he continued “because traditional thinking has closed the bridge and padlocked the gate”.
James Barker, President of Barker Engineering of Bloomington, Indiana, addressed the question of the condition of the bridge right now. His firm was hired last summer by the Historic Landmarks Foundation to do an independent assessment of the bridge condition. His report concurs with the one done in May by AECON Engineering that led to the bridge closure by the White County Bridge Commission.
“Basically there is one critical repair needed on the Illinois side approach and three more minor repairs on the Indiana approach as well as some other smaller things,” he explained. “The bridge span is in good condition, the problems are on these approach spans. There are expansion joints where water goes through the gaps with no filler and rusts the trusses underneath them. Plates can be welded on these spots”.
His report states that the bridge is salvageable and estimates that these four repairs would cost $40,000. As soon as possible, the accumulated dirt and debris under the deck drains needs to be removed with high pressure water jets and the deck joints and under the deck curb drains need to be replaced with improved design features. “It is far from beyond hope and totally repairable,” Barker said.
Carmi Business Owner Rhoda Wade asked why a loan wasn’t taken out by the White County Bridge Commission to cover this as it is less than a house mortgage.
“What’s holding this up?” she queried. Darvon Barnes asked how much the WCBC had remaining in its accounts and was told $75,000.
Dr. David Rice, representing the WCBC, explained that the commission is private and was created by Congress in 1941 He is one of three members of the WCBC along with Jim Clark and Michael Egbert. To get public grants, the bridge ownership must be transferred to one or two of five public entities that abut the bridge. Eligible units of government are Phillips Township and White County in Illinois, and Harmony Township, Town of New Harmony, and Posey County in Indiana. “We need to find an entity willing to take it over,” Dave Brown observed.
Local resident Ray McConnell asked if the $40,000 repair was enough to pass inspection and Barker said INDOT has the final say in that. “It could be tackled immediately and reopened and you could keep it going for a year or two until you find a public owner and do long range planning. Our report did not study ten-twenty years out’ he said.
Construction Company Owner DK Parker reminded everyone that is just the beginning of the maintenance needed on the bridge, but grants were available if it is public. “There is lead –based paint on it and the guard rails need to be replaced. It has weak points, but it is structurally good”, he said. “It will cost almost four million to tear it down and the town of New Harmony will also have to pay to move their gas lines which run across it”.
Wade asked the engineer what it would cost 5-10 years down the road. He estimated 7 million dollars. Local Shop Owner Jim Spann said he talked to a Federal Highway Commission member and they would pay for a long term report if INDOT would ask for it. INDOT won’t since it is not publicly owned.
Ten million dollars was offered by the state to an entity to build a new bridge last year and Darvon Barnes wondered if some of that money could be used to refurbish the existing structure. He was told that offer became null when Governor Mitch Daniels left office in January. “Bummer”, he muttered.
\If the bridge is turned over to a public unit of government, White County will lose about $17,000 in taxes from the private commission. Carlene Van Lannigham brought up raising fees to cross the bridge. “Think of how much we spend to go around the long way now,” she said.
Carmi Shop Owner Jim Wade told the group “I came here with the idea that this bridge was totally unsafe and needs to be torn down. Now I have a different opinion. We need a committee to pull this together, find out the facts and get the word out”. The group agreed to meet monthly and elect officers at the next meeting on June 19. The committee could also act as a fundraising entity for the bridge.
Rallying the group, Betty Barnett summed it up with “We need to get out and fight for that bridge. We don’t expect it to get up and come to us.”