EYE ON THE PIE: Tale of 2 bridges has deeper meaning

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Two bridges at opposite ends of the state are of concern to neighboring citizens and all Hoosiers. Both are historic steel-truss bridges. One spans the Wabash River connecting New Harmony (Posey County) with White County, Ill. The second spans the Gibson rail yard in Hammond (Lake County) and carries the traffic of busy Indianapolis Boulevard.

Both bridges are in poor condition. The Indiana Department of Transportation has recommendations for both bridges. Local officials are opposed to the INDOT plans. Whose values and whose opinions should prevail? What is in the best interests of the local area and does that complement or conflict with the interests of the state?

The Hammond case is less complex. Indianapolis Boulevard is two lanes in each direction as it crosses the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad’s Gibson Yard. The bridge, with its nine spans, is an old, high structure that is “functionally obsolete.” Slowly, but perhaps more rapidly with Major Moves, INDOT has been improving the roadway and the bridges of this vital traffic artery in northwestern Indiana.

The new bridges over rail lines do not rise as high into the air. Thus, drivers are less intimidated by the trucks traveling in the opposite direction racing down a steep slope toward anticipated collisions. INDOT proposes such a new bridge at the Gibson Yard crossing. To have less slope, the bridge would be shorter and dirt fill would occupy part of the yard.

This would be fine except that the Gibson Yard, according to local political leaders and transit experts, is an ideal location for a new intermodal truck-rail facility. Such a transfer point would fit under today’s high bridge, but would not be feasible with a lower bridge and less generous land area.

There could be hundreds of jobs at stake here and the full economic ramifications have yet to be explored. Does INDOT spend $3 million to $4 million more for a higher bridge to accommodate job creation? Or does it split that added cost with the companies and communities that will benefit from those new businesses and new jobs?

That’s the easy question. Now the tougher issue: the New Harmony Toll Bridge. This narrow (20-foot-wide) structure was built during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It has been a virtual orphan since then, not part of the Indiana or Illinois highway systems, but the responsibility of the White County (Ill.) Bridge Commission established by Congress in 1941.

INDOT is too polite and too political to say outright that the bridge has outlived its usefulness and is on life support. Local leadership argues that “this structure continues to provide a vital link between the people of New Harmony, southwestern Indiana, and southeastern Illinois.” That link is expressed as commutes to work, medical trips and travel for agricultural purposes.

The New Harmony Toll Bridge collected $433,000 in tolls in 2002 and $413,000 in 2003. It is reputed to have 1,000 vehicles using it per day. The toll charge is $1. It, too, is rated as “functionally obsolete,” but that is an engineering assessment, not an economic or social statement.

To keep the bridge open serves the daily needs of a number of people in both states. It reduces their travel time and cost. It supports tourism to New Harmony. It sustains a relationship to a time past.

Should this bridge become a walking and bicycling bridge only? Vehicles could use Interstate 64, 7-1/2 miles away on a fine new road. Is it worth $7 million to $25 million to bring this bridge or any replacement up to higher standards?

These two bridges are but a few of the issues facing INDOT and the people of Indiana. Local interests see the cases in very clear terms. The investments are necessary beyond question. But these questions are not decided on their technical or economic merits. They are decided by state legislators and influence peddlers making back-scratching deals. Maybe it cannot be otherwise in a democracy.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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