PORTAGE | The superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is thinking big for the future of the park. Really big.
Superintendent Constantine Dillon is in the process of informal discussions with area leaders about his vision for a hike and bike suspension bridge spanning U.S. 20, Ind. 249 and Burns Ditch.
Dillon said he would like to see a structure similar to the 3,000-foot Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge that connects Omaha, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
That bridge, which opened in 2008, cost $44 million to construct. Both sides connect to a network of trails and parks.
"This is a stunning bridge that can become an icon of Northwest Indiana, a symbol of how Northwest Indiana views its lakefront," Dillon said. "What a perfect metaphor of the blending of nature and steel."
Dillon believes the bridge would be a destination for visitors.
"People will come just to see this," Dillon said.
Dillon has had informal discussions with Regional Development Authority President Bill Hanna, who supports the concept.
"You have this pent up demand for access to the resources," Hanna said. "We want to see the next phase be about connectivity. The lakefront projects are supposed to drive economic and other activity. That's the Marquette Plan's vision."
Hanna said some people define being next to the lakeshore as being on the beach, "but that's just not true."
"If you are in Portage, you are a lakefront community, but folks who don't see the lake don't always think of it that way," Hanna said. "Connectivity is the way to do that."
Hanna said the RDA would have to closely explore funding mechanisms for such a project and see what type of leverage it could generate to secure those funds.
"We aim to be the last dollars in," Hanna said.
Mitch Barloga, nonmotorized transportation expert for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, said he has not been approached about the concept. Barloga leads pedestrian, bicycle and water trail planning in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties for NIRPC.
A.J. Monroe, director of public works for Portage, said for the bridge to span U.S. 20, Ind. 249 and Burns Ditch, it would have to be at least 3 miles long, five times as long as the Bob Kerrey bridge which cost $44 million to build.
Monroe said the bridge is a great concept, but believes the funding needed to build it could be better applied to projects already under way or included in the city's long-term plans.
"Is $44 million or more for a bridge the right thing or should we be spending that other projects with lower hanging fruit?" Monroe said, adding that $44 million could pay for the completion of all of the projects north-south connection projects already planned by the city.
Monroe cited the 1.25 mile trail under construction near the NIRPC building and discussions taking place to add another 2 miles of trail. That project and others aimed at connecting the north and south ends of Portage are using existing infrastructure whenever possible in an effort to save funds, materials and manpower.
Monroe also said the competition for trail funding has become increasingly difficult and often becomes mired in semantics and interpretations of the use of the property.
"I love the big ideas, but I would challenge the park service to help us connect the east and west parts of the park that I know from the expansion of the park in 1987 were supposed to take place," Monroe said. "Portage will take responsibility for the north-south connection because it is our responsibility in our community."