Demolition work continues on the Cline Ave. bridge in East Chicago

Demolition work continues on the Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago. Despite a May announcement of a deal to build a new Cline Avenue Bridge, documents obtained by The Times show the state has yet to conclude a critical land-swap agreement with the bridge's private developer.

John J. Watkins | The Times

INDIANAPOLIS | If the response from local and state officials to the apparent resolution of the Cline Avenue Bridge quandary is any indication, the issue of replacing free roads and bridges with tolled infrastructure is likely to divide Hoosiers for years to come.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he understands why East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland opted for a Cline Avenue toll bridge; ultimately it was the only way to get a new bridge and relieve congestion on local roads in East Chicago, Hammond and Whiting.

But McDermott said the Indiana Department of Transportation should never have forced Copeland to make that choice.

"It's not consistent with INDOT's approach in other areas. They build bridges all over the state of Indiana but not in Northwest Indiana? ... It's an insult," McDermott said. "It should have been a freeway just like it was before."

McDermott vowed to "never, ever, ever use that toll bridge" and said, "For the rest of my life I will drive around it. I'll be 80 years old, and I'll drive around it."

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson also believes Cline Avenue should have been rebuilt as a free bridge but said a toll bridge is better than nothing.

"I was one of the first people who understood that if they weren't willing to make the investment, then we needed to look at innovative alternatives," Freeman-Wilson said. She said she worked with region business, economic development, along with union and elected leaders to make the case to state officials for any kind of bridge.

Freeman-Wilson expects the new Cline bridge will be an asset for Gary/Chicago International Airport users, giving them faster access to the airport from downtown Chicago compared to the Indiana Toll Road.

Gov. Mitch Daniels said toll bridges and toll roads are going to become a lot more common in Indiana and the United States in the future.

"It's just a different way of paying for it," Daniels said. "Frankly, the idea that the users pay for a very specific facility or service I think is a very fair one, instead of charging people who will never use the bridge for it."

The Republican governor said he won't be satisfied with the Cline Avenue situation "until we have a bridge that's working to the benefit of the community." But, he said, "I'm very hopeful and I'm encouraged that what looked like a problem without a solution, it appears has found one."

Once the paperwork is finalized, Daniels said he expects fast action on a new bridge. The estimated cost of the bridge is $150 million.

"This company has every incentive to build a good bridge and build it quickly, so they can start trying to get their money back," Daniels said.

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, who is running to succeed Daniels in the governor's office, shares Daniels' positive opinion on using public-private partnerships to build new infrastructure.

"Innovative financing is the best, most cost-effective way to do large projects now and into the future," Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault said. "Given dwindling state and federal revenues and eroding gas taxes, Mike Pence plans to move Indiana forward by working with partners in the private sector."

Denault said Pence believes roads ought "to the best extent possible be paid for by those who use them." She said he lauds East Chicago "for finding a way to work with the state and a private developer to come up with a forward-thinking way to build a multimillion-dollar piece of infrastructure for their community."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg said he is willing to discuss greater use of public-private partnerships, but said the Cline Avenue Bridge should have been immediately rebuilt as a free bridge.

"If I were governor, that bridge wouldn't have been closed this long, and the reality of it is, were that a bridge from Indianapolis into one of the (nearby) counties, it would have been fixed right away," Gregg said. "It shows the bias this current administration has toward Northwest Indiana."

He said Daniels is "wrong" to single out the region for special treatment and effectively force area residents to pay for something no one else in the state pays for. He said the state needs to do a better job promoting Northwest Indiana and its connections to the third-largest metropolitan area in the country. 

"That's an asset," Gregg said. "That's something we need to brag about."

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.