MUNSTER | U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., blasted the state for its failure to maintain Cline Avenue, calling it inconceivable, shameful and a disgrace.
Donnelly channeled the frustration of many Northwest Indiana drivers while talking with The Times editorial board Monday. He ripped the state for failing to replace the Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago, and for generally failing to take care of one of Northwest Indiana's busiest expressways.
In the case of Cline Avenue, the Indiana Department of Transportation has been derelict in its most basic duty, Donnelly said.
"How can you call yourself the Indiana Department of Transportation when you won't even rebuild a road?" he said. "This is a road that has deteriorated because of a lack of maintenance over the years, and our obligation is to fix it and get it done."
Cline Avenue – the main route for many to steel mills, casinos and the Gary/Chicago International Airport – has lately been described as a minefield of potholes. Many motorists have suffered flat tires, damaged axles and askew alignments. A section of the state highway had to be closed a week ago so road crews could patch up the potholes that left the shoulders littered with abandoned vehicles propped up on jacks.
"I don't control state finances, but I personally think it is a disgrace that Cline Avenue is in the state it's in when the Indiana Toll Road was sold off for $3.8 billion," Donnelly said. "That was a road that primarily the people of Northern Indiana paid for every time we paid a toll one way or another. ... Out of $3.8 billion, you're telling me we couldn't rebuild Cline Avenue, which is a critical artery to the Toll Road? It's almost an adjunct to the Toll Road."
He contrasted Cline with the Sherman Minton Bridge, which links Louisville, Ky., to New Albany in southern Indiana. The state closed that bridge for safety reasons in September 2011, nearly two years after the Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago was condemned. The Sherman Minton Bridge in reopened in eight months after $20 million in repairs. The Cline Avenue Bridge remains closed today.
Donnelly said it was beyond him why Cline Avenue Bridge still has not been replaced, more than four years after inspectors' concerns about corrosion led to an emergency closure.
Indiana received about $3.8 billion for leasing the Indiana Toll Road to a private Australian-Spanish consortium, and dedicated that money to its Major Moves program that funded road projects throughout the state. Donnelly said some of the money should be been set aside for Cline Avenue, a vital link to the Toll Road that also provides access to ArcelorMittal and other major employers.
Instead, the state reneged on early announcements it would rebuild the Cline Avenue Bridge on an accelerated schedule. The Indiana Department of Transportation turned the property over to the private infrastructure company United Bridge Partners, which has hired the Figg Group to starting building a new toll bridge sometime early this year.
Cars are expected to pay tolls of between $2.25 and $3.50.
"They say they're going to turn it into a toll road, $3 each way," Donnelly said. "If you're a steelworker or someone going to work, who has $150 a month they can throw away for this type of thing, when it is an absolutely critical road? Why this road for a Toll Road instead of somewhere else?"
Donnelly said it was one thing to impose a toll on a newly built bridge, but that it was not appropriate with an existing highway. He said the state easily reaped enough money from the Toll Road lease to pay for the bridge replacement the state has estimated could cost at least $150 million, and that the private company has said could cost as much as $250 million.
"I had been told it would cost $133 million," he said. "On $3.8 billion, $133 million is less than the interest. It's like six months of interest. I was thinking, 'What are we doing?'"
The drivers of northern Indiana provide the rest of the state with a large windfall for road funding, and the state should have shown some appreciation for where the money came from, Donnelly said. State government had an obligation to take care of one of the biggest expressways that feeds into the Toll Road, he said.
"It is unthinkable to me that that hasn't been fixed in a proper way, done, squared away," Donnelly said. "It is shameful."
Indiana's $2 billion surplus would provide more than enough funding to fix the Cline Avenue Bridge without turning it into a toll road, but all the focus in Indianapolis is on tax cuts, he said.
"It's a $2 billion surplus, and we can't find $133 million to build a road that was part of the package that made the Toll Road so attractive," he said. "It has always infuriated me. It just doesn't add up."