Chesterton Tribune

Evans slams INDOT for blackmail on US Steel bridge

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

An agreement with the Indiana Department of Transportation is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the Porter County Commissioners.

A deputy of INDOT’s LaPorte District, Mike McPhillips, showed up at Tuesday’s regular Board of Commissioners meeting to hear whether the commissioners would reaffirm terms in an agreement to maintain the elevated bridge over U.S. 12 in Portage that leads into U.S. Steel mill property.

Carrying with him a written statement from INDOT, McPhillips said the county must keep its end of the bargain after a Memorandum of Agreement was established in 2003 stating that the county and the City of Portage would maintain the bridge built by INDOT.

The county was assigned to oversee the bridge while Portage is responsible for maintaining the approaches.

If the county doesn’t comply, the statement read, INDOT would “notify the Federal Highway Administration of such conduct” and then make the recommendation that the county repay the $3.2 million it cost to construct the bridge.

Also, the county would be shut off from receiving funds by the state agency if the agreement is not honored. “INDOT may also withhold funding on Porter County projects that is available for certain discretionary projects in the future,” said McPhillips reading from the statement.

County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, spoke out against the terms of the agreement, saying that they carried “the threat of litigation by blackmail” forcing the county to agree or end up paying the $3.2 million.

“It’s not something we want to do, but we need to do it,” he said. “We really don’t have much choice in the matter.”

Evans said he has been opposed to the maintenance agreement since the beginning because the magnitude of the bridge and its associated costs would outreach what the county is able to budget for bridge maintenance.

County engineer Ray Riddel concurred, saying, “We’re not set up to handle a bridge like that.”

The bigger concern, Evans said, is what will happen in 30 to 40 years when the bridge would need to be replaced.

County attorney Gwenn Rinkenberger said the county should not be responsible for the bridge since it is on private property and is only used by the trucks moving in and out of the steel plant.

Rinkenberger said the county was advised by legal counsel and county engineers not to make the agreement in 2003. She said the agreement was signed, but under duress, and still holds objections.

Evans said if the commissioners did not give nod to the agreement in 2003, roughly 600 workers would have lost their jobs because they would not be able to access the mill.

The bridge was constructed after a fatal accident where three railroad workers lost their lives crashing a South Shore train into a semitrailer that was attempting to cross the tracks.

The county took ownership of the bridge in the agreement, McPhillips said, but has not performed any kind of maintenance or required inspections while Portage on the other hand has made good on its procedures.

McPhillips said the steel mill began to ask INDOT about the maintenance earlier this year which prompted them to revisit the agreement with the county. U.S. Steel feared trucks moving across the “bumpy” bridge would lose their steel coils from bouncing.

The state performed an inspection in July and found the bridge to be in very good condition despite a few visible cracks and breaks in the concrete wall panel from a fatal car crash in 2009. An inspection done later by county engineers found similar results.

McPhillips said the terms Evans spoke on were not intended as “threats” and that the matter is simply just a business agreement where one of the involved parties has not fulfilled its obligations.

Since the state has made the point they are willing to withhold money for future projects, Evans said it will not be likely that the county will be able to dispute the agreement in court.

The commissioners officially agreed to the contract 2-0 with nods from Evans and fellow commissioner Carole Knoblock, D-South. Absent from the meeting was outgoing Porter County Commissioner President Robert Harper, D-Center.

Evans included in the motion that the county seek assistance from U.S. Steel in the maintenance procedures.

Evans said it was insulting to him that INDOT assumed the county was not looking out for the safety of its citizens. He suspects INDOT is also targeting other counties who have bridges that cross over state highways and leave them holding the bill, which he believes the state is aware of.

New Officials to be Sworn In Jan. 1

The commissioners announced swearing-in ceremonies for incoming county officials will be held Saturday, Jan. 1 at 10 a.m. in the Commissioner’s Chambers at the Porter County Administration Building.

The event will be coordinated by the Porter County Republicans who will provide refreshments.

Administering the oaths will be Porter County Superior Court judges Mary Harper and Jeffrey Thode.

In other business on Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to extend a Memorandum of Understanding between the county and the National Park Service over the use of the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center.

The Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission board in November voted to extend the MOU to November 2011 to match the timeframe of the lease agreement with NPS. PCCRVC Director Lorelei Weimer said the extension of the MOU would allow the NPS to continue making payments.

New Meeting Time

On a separate note, Evans told the Tribune the county commissioners will schedule their bi-monthly meetings regularly for 2 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. as they had previously done some years ago.

 

 

Posted 12/22/2010