Lake County's Range Line Road bridge is a throwback in every sense of the word.
I remember on more than one occasion taking a deep breath before accelerating slowly out onto the wooden plank surface of this old, rusty, steel truss bridge spanning the Kankakee River near the Grand Kankakee Marsh.
The deep breath was a mental bracing for two imaginary hazards. First, it's a bit unnerving to drive on rickety wooden planks — though the structure was plenty sturdy — spanning a waterway. Second, one imagines potentially needing a tetanus shot after traversing the bridge, given the healthy layer of rust on its trusses.
But now the oxidized old 60-ton beast is slated for retirement as a re-purposed historical attraction. It's being donated to the Kankakee Valley Historical Society and is set to be moved to Porter County's historic Collier Lodge beginning this week. The donation is a good use of an old bridge that reminds us of the challenges we face in modernizing aging infrastructure throughout the country.
I first became acquainted with the bridge about nine years ago while analyzing federal government bridge data for a series on aging infrastructure in the region.
The Range Line Road bridge became the poster child for obsolete road bridges in our region, often featured in reoccurring investigative projects in The Times. Aside from its physical appearance, engineering data showed its design was no longer optimal for carrying the traffic expected of it.
The bridge wasn't falling apart by any means, and you can still drive over it today. But it's a one-lane bridge fed by two-way traffic in both directions, meaning only one vehicle can traverse it at any given time.
And its 1920s-era design isn't getting any younger.
In short, the bridge has been ready for retirement for many years, and the Lake County Highway Department is seeking bids for a replacement. A new bridge will no doubt cost in the millions of dollars.
The distinct look of the old iron bridge made it easy over the years to see its aging — to know when its time as a viable traffic conduit was fading.
But most road bridges are almost undetectable as bridges at all. They vanish into the winding road surfaces, spanning nearly unseen ditches, creeks or streams.
Past Times investigations have revealed many of those unseen road bridges also had outlived their viability — whether because they were too narrow to handle changing traffic patterns or were deteriorating.
In general, our Lake and Porter county highway departments have done a good job keeping our road bridges operable. But it's a challenge faced by county and state governments throughout the nation.
Sometimes we're reminded of the high stakes of not maintaining bridge infrastructure.
In December 2009, Indiana Department of Transportation officials closed the Cline Avenue Bridge after engineers discovered dangerously weakened interior support cables. It has yet to reopen, causing numerous traffic headaches in north Lake County.
It's all a reminder of a price to be paid — sometimes in public safety and other times in hampered traffic and commerce — by not paying a maintenance price up front.