INDIANAPOLIS | A region state senator is questioning why Indiana seems willing to spend money on expensive bridge and road projects across the state, but wouldn't pay to replace the Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago.
State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, said recently the 2011 decision by the Indiana Department of Transportation to have a private company rebuild Cline and turn it into a toll bridge smacks of Indianapolis-centered elitism.
"We should not have to have them think twice about rebuilding Cline Avenue, because all the tax dollars that they collect here go down to Indianapolis to help grow and build Indianapolis," Randolph said.
Randolph said lawmakers have, for decades, redirected billions in tax revenue collected from large Northwest Indiana companies and their employees to pay for improvements in other parts of the state.
That doesn't even count the higher tolls region residents will pay as part of the 2006 lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a private company for the next 75 years, he said.
In the past five years, using mostly Toll Road lease funds, Indiana spent $7.1 billion on road construction projects, including $700 million to build 67 miles of Interstate 69 from Evansville to Crane; $423 million to widen Interstate 465 around Indianapolis and $187 million to widen the Borman Expressway.
INDOT also has rehabilitated or replaced 615 of the 5,300 state-maintained bridges, or nearly 12 percent, since 2006, according to the agency — but not Cline Avenue.
The projected cost to replace the Cline Avenue Bridge was $150 million but federal funds would have covered most of that, leaving the state to pay just $30 million.
"Why can't you utilize the same tax dollars to do the same thing for Northwest Indiana?" Randolph asked.
When the region needs a hand to rebuild a key connection to Chicago, it instead gets slapped down — even as the region is poised for tremendous growth in commerce, shipping and other industries, Randolph said.
"We're looking at the potential economic opportunity that could exist here if the right ideas, plans and funds are put behind it," Randolph said. "If we become profitable up here in terms of economic development, it's going to have a spillover effect on the rest of the state, which includes Indianapolis."
The 26-year-old Cline Avenue Bridge over the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, which carried some 35,000 vehicles a day, was closed in 2009 and demolished in January after inspections determined the cables and concrete supporting the bridge were unsafe.
Gov. Mitch Daniels initially vowed to rebuild the bridge using state funds, but INDOT nixed those plans. It recommended instead that several upgraded local roads serve as a replacement.
The land under the former bridge was transferred late last year to Cline Avenue Bridge LLC, a consortia of three private companies, which intends to rebuild the bridge during the next two years and charge an unspecified toll to bridge users.
Gov. Mike Pence appears not to have taken any steps to review or reverse that decision when he took office in January. A Pence spokeswoman referred questions to INDOT.
INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said Lake County, the state's second-most populous county, is consistently second in state road and bridge spending.
He said the region also stands to benefit from the millions INDOT has spent planning the Illiana Expressway, proposed to be built with private funds and operated as a toll road set to run on state land from Interstate 65 in southern Lake County to Interstate 55 near Joliet.
"We are moving forward aggressively on that project," Wingfield said.