Under Whose Watch did Cline Avenue Bridge Fall?

July 18, 2011

Have you ever seen a project (i.e., Cline Avenue) with more back flips, turns, somersaults and reversals than the porpoise Flipper ever imagined when he entertained his guests at Sea World?

Well, the Cline Avenue bridge replacement/demolition/rerouting saga might come close to matching the antics of Flipper, yet we are not amused by all the gyrations performed during the past 18 months by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

First there were the infamous "political poses" on Cline Avenue, on a cold blustery day in January 2010, when we were told, "Money is not an issue because of the recent Toll Road Lease, and this bridge will be rebuilt as speedily as we can." Then INDOT told us in a public hearing that Cline Avenue was a "priority" for INDOT, but the replacement of Cline Avenue will take time, so be patient, get your community organized to discuss the project, and sooner or later, we will have a solution.

Then, following weeks of intense negotiations by a Cline Avenue coalition of key stakeholders, came the big moment --INDOT gathered us all together to tell us that they were not going to rebuild Cline Avenue, but rather they had devised a terrific plan by themselves to detour traffic through two busy railroad crossings, and an antiquated draw bridge, while 10,000 employees of the world's largest steel company and a world-class refinery were getting to and from work on a daily basis. Brilliant!

Case closed; INDOT had spoken. Or was it?

INDOT had successfully undermined the entire coalition and received the individual support of some key stakeholders and union officials (who believed INDOT's promise that thousands of jobs were going to start immediately with their new plan; hat ship has sailed).

Then came the idea of possibly injecting private dollars, coupled with municipal dollars, into the Cline Avenue project to make it happen. This brought all those stakeholders out of the woodwork that had previously abandoned the coalition's plans to rebuild, and they could not wait to pile on to the bandwagon.

What next? You guessed it. The bandwagon collapsed, and we are now back to square one, with INDOT proclaiming we have until Sept. 1 to either come up with a financing plan, or they will go back to their original detour plan of "over the river and through the woods."

One glaring question that seems to have slipped under the radar in this entire discussion about Cline Avenue is this: Why did the Cline Avenue bridge fail in the first place, and under whose watch?

Usually O&M (operation and maintenance) of a state highway falls under the watchful eye of you know who. Much like the 6-year-old Martin Luther King Drive Bridge in Gary (which closed prematurely in May 2010), there seems to be an underlying factor with our failing bridges in the state's second-largest county.

Maybe we should privatize our highway management group and put it in the hands of professionals who build bridges for a living.

Dave Ryan is executive director of the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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