Repairs slated for crumbling 39th Street bridge: Federal funding could draw criticism from watchdogs

August 11, 2008

Each year, the 30,000 people who ride the Fishers fair train disembark at a depot east of Fall Creek and shuffle 228 feet across the historic 39th Street bridge, which leads to Gate 6 of the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

Few likely give much thought to the crumbling condition of the bridge, other than noticing that a large block of stone railing has broken off at the west end. But, below, stones also have fallen off the sides of an arch barrel-stones that hold back tons of fill that helps support the 21-foot-wide bridge deck.

A "Weight Limit 15 tons" sign still in place is optimistic and dates to the closure of the bridge to vehicle traffic in 1993. Bridgehunter.com, a database of historic U.S. bridges, says the bridge built early in the 20th century is structurally deficient and that its superstructure is in "critical" condition.

The Indiana State Fair and the city of Indianapolis have been planning repairs for at least two years and had intended to bid out the work six months ago. But the city says the work now won't begin until sometime after the fair ends Aug. 17. Bids were due Aug. 6.

Repairs are estimated to cost $2.3 million.

"The project, provided the job is successfully bid, should begin at the end of September and be done by next spring," said Andy Klotz, fair spokesman.

The delay involved the need to obtain final approvals from state historical preservation officials, said Kit Werbe, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. A review was required because the bridge sits in a historic preservation area.

The Indiana State Fair Commission, in a recent report, says the bridge is still rated safe for pedestrians, but "its suitability even for foot traffic diminishes with each advancing year."

According to plans filed with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, repairs to the 39th Street bridge will focus on arch rings, piers, spandrel walls and abutments. Portions of masonry railing will be replaced and a 9-inch handrail will be added. The deck will be repaved with asphalt, but the bridge will not be reopened to vehicular traffic.

The $2.3 million needed to restore the bridge has already been lassoed: $1.86 million in federal transportation enhancement, or TE, grants, with the remainder to be paid by the State Fair and city DPW.

Federal transportation grants have become somewhat controversial, often allocated for projects of dubious transportation-related uses.

In 2005, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis drew the ire of fiscal conservatives nationwide when word got out it was designated to receive $12.5 million in TE grants to improve safety around the museum, including construction of separate freight entrances and to extend a pedestrian walkway.

Some questioned why taxpayers in other states were being forced to pay for a museum's infrastructure in Indianapolis. The Tampa Tribune lumped the Children's Museum project in with a study of reducing road kill on a list of dubious TE projects.

While the State Fair hasn't received such limelight, records show it received $2.9 million in federal TE money in recent years for a landscaping and pedestrian project near the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' pavilion.

The project with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources also included an amphitheater, reconstructed fish ponds, walkways accessible to the disabled, and a "Butterfly Corner."

As for the money to rehab the 39th Street pedestrian bridge, "I'm sure that the thousands who use it to come to the fair wouldn't mind seeing it fixed," Klotz said.

The bridge will get more use this fall when the fair train makes four round trips carrying passengers to the state fairgrounds for the Indianapolis Oktoberfest.

The three-span 39th Street bridge was one of many built in Indiana using the reinforced concrete bridge technique pioneered by Austrian engineer Josef Melan in the late 1800s. The so-called closed spandrel bridge uses concrete arches shrouded with decorative stone that replicates the look of masonry arch bridges.

Closed spandrel arch bridges amount to one-fifth of bridges designed and built by the state highway department before World War II, according to a report by consulting firm Mead & Hunt. Such picturesque bridges were popular for parkway settings.

Another concrete closed spandrel bridge, one still carrying vehicle traffic, is the Meridian Street Bridge over Fall Creek.
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