Other bridge actions seem to open Cline divide wider

2012-08-19T00:00:00Z 2012-08-19T16:42:05Z Other bridge actions seem to open Cline divide widerBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Bridge and ramp projects in Northwest Indiana and elsewhere are getting a careful look as local industry and others consider the fairness of putting a private toll bridge on Cline Avenue.

One of the biggest controversies has been generated by the state's November 2011 decision to call off the Dickey Road ramp project in pursuit of a deal with a private company to replace the condemned Cline Avenue Bridge.

Steelmaker ArcelorMittal, in unusually strong and unequivocal statements in March, said that canceling the ramp project endangered employees, vendors, contractors and residents of Northwest Indiana.

The Dickey Road ramp at Cline Avenue was proposed by INDOT as part of a permanent detour plan announced in April 2010. It would have taken trucks and cars over a Dickey Road rail crossing where traffic can back up for more than an hour because of stopped or slow-moving trains.

In a statement provided in response to a Times inquiry last week, an ArcelorMittal representative made it clear the steelmaker continues to believe a ramp at Dickey Road would best serve the community.

"ArcelorMittal still believes that a ramp system over the railroad tracks at Dickey Road should be an integral part of the solution as it would address a major commercial disruption and, even more ominously, a critical safety matter," the statement read in part.

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield, interviewed a few weeks ago on the subject, said the new bridge basically would preclude the building of a new ramp. He denied the ramp was eliminated to create more traffic for the private toll bridge.

Another nearby major employer, Ameristar Casino, has had even closer involvement with the building of a new Cline Avenue Bridge. In early 2011, the casino was negotiating with INDOT to provide up to $35 million for building a new Cline Avenue Bridge.

Those negotiations broke down in the summer of that year, when INDOT announced it would proceed with its "permanent detour" plans. Casino officials said it was difficult for them to commit to the deal until more was known about the probable addition of more casinos in Illinois.

But this year, Ameristar has been moving forward on investing its own money in a ramp and bridge project in Springfield, Mass., where it hopes to land one of the state's first casino licenses.

According to reports in The Republican newspaper in Springfield, Ameristar is offering to build and pay for access roads, including a bridge over busy Interstate 291, so that Springfield neighborhoods are not deluged with casino traffic. The project has an estimated cost of $50 million.

Ameristar spokesman Reginald Dotson said the Cline Avenue Bridge project and the Springfield access roads are different in nature.

"It's all part of our process in getting our license," Dotson said. "So we are just doing our due diligence and making sure people are comfortable with us coming to Massachusetts."

Another would-be bridge project is attracting attention because of both its similarities and differences when compared to Cline Avenue.

The New Harmony Bridge over the Wabash River between Indiana and Illinois was shut down in May after bridge inspectors found the 82-year-old bridge had deteriorated more than previously thought. It carried about 1,000 vehicles per day as compared to the Cline Avenue Bridge's preclosure traffic of 35,000 per day.

In June, INDOT offered to contribute $10 million of the New Harmony Bridge's estimated replacement cost of $20 million to $25 million. INDOT has said the cost of replacing the Cline Avenue Bridge, where the state would have to put up about $30 million of its estimated cost of $150 million, would not be worth it.

Wingfield said the difference in total cost of the two bridges is a significant factor in the state's decision on the Cline Avenue Bridge. Although it is probable federal funds could be used for up to 80 percent of the cost of replacing the bridge, that would be money INDOT could not use for projects elsewhere.

"There is not an unlimited amount of federal funding," Wingfield said. "The state has not been given a blank check by the feds."

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