News and Tribune

April 28, 2014

OUR OPINION: Our poor fate with the Big Four


— The ramp leading up from Pearl Street in Jeffersonville to the Big Four Bridge is complete.

Walkers and cyclists who soon will use the bridge can see the incline. Only a flimsy orange construction fence signifies that the bridge can’t yet be used.

It was a shame when the opening date of last summer for the ramp got pushed back … and pushed back … and pushed back.

It’s now a shame that the Indiana Department of Transportation has not done more for the residents of Southern Indiana and Louisville to get the bridge open, even if only on a temporary basis until permanent lighting work can be completed.

Plenty of blame has been thrown around at dining tables, on social media and through online forums, and there have been a series of reasons the bridge was delayed last year and into early 2014.

One was a design flaw in the steel used in box girders installed on the ramp. When the girders were put in, the steel sagged more than expected.

Another was a change in lighting. Residents of the Rose Hill neighborhood did not want post lighting similar to what is installed on Louisville’s ramp to the Big Four, which has been open for 14 months.

The city and INDOT listened to residents and changed to the lighting that’s being installed on Indiana’s ramp. The lighting in handrails is attractive and we commend officials for listening to the concerns of neighborhood residents. No one should fault leaders for caring about taxpayers.

In March, with the biggest annual event in the area — the Kentucky Derby — approaching, Mayor Mike Moore and his administration saw an opportunity to ease the frustration of Hoosiers and Louisvillians wanting to use the bridge by striking a deal with INDOT to have temporary lighting installed to open the former railroad span.

They thought, anyway.

The past couple of weeks have proven that agreement false, as INDOT — the agency in charge of construction — has backed away from using temporary lighting, and it now appears the bridge will not open until late May at the earliest — well after Derby.

As Jeffersonville Corporation Attorney Les Merkley told the News and Tribune for a story last week, the city called a special meeting of its Redevelopment Commission on March 19 specifically to approve a change order authored by INDOT to purchase and install temporary lighting. It was at that meeting the city announced a prospective April 30 opening date for the Big Four.

“To me, every day’s important, but Derby Day is when we have hundreds of thousands if not millions of people seeing Louisville and Jeffersonville,” Moore told the newspaper March 19. “It’s a great opportunity for us. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of investors putting their hard-earned dollars into Jeffersonville. They are doing it with the anticipation of the Big Four Bridge. It’s a great time to be in Jeff, but Derby is a huge impact.”

Merkley provided the News and Tribune a copy of INDOT’s change order. The two parties did not sign it, but Merkley explained that change orders are often sent from the state unsigned and the city acts on that document.

The city was required to approve the change order because the project is 20 percent funded by the city. The other 80 percent is federal money, with the project administered by INDOT. Once completed, the ramp will be turned over to the city for any maintenance.

No matter what the formula is, all of the money comes from taxpayers, and we feel the state should have shown more urgency in getting Indiana’s ramp open. From conversations with the city and INDOT, it could be just a case of miscommunication between INDOT’s local [Seymour] district and administrators in Indianapolis in terms of the temporary lighting plan.

But the paperwork is there and the city didn’t call a special meeting April 19 for no reason.

The plan for temporary lighting — which would have allowed the bridge to likely open this week — was a good one, and it should have been carried out by INDOT. It would benefit residents and businesses. The city and state would stop being the punch line of jokes.

Perhaps the state just doesn’t understand the intense desire of residents in two states to get the bridge open. It’s a really, really big deal.

Often, we hear area leaders say, “Indianapolis doesn’t care about Southern Indiana.”

We don’t think that’s true, but maybe INDOT is a bit out of touch with the residents here that pay to operate the department.

The state explains it won’t open the bridge because the permanent lighting is being installed and contractors can’t have pedestrians and bikers on the bridge while work is being done, and that it has a construction deadline to meet with its contractor.

We think that’s the easy way out. For starters, the city offered to cover any liability issues for the state and contractor through its insurance carrier. Merkley said that’s an easy process.

Second, INDOT deals with hundreds of projects around the state. Their contractors are doing work with cars whizzing by at 45 mph or faster. That sounds like more of a liability issue than walkers and bikers on a bridge ramp.

We have to believe there is a creative solution to open the bridge. Here are a few:

1. Open Indiana’s ramp during the day and close it at night until lighting is installed.

2. Set up barriers to separate workers installing lights from people using the ramp.

3. Open the ramp on weekends and close it during the week for installation work.

4. Open the ramp this week and through Derby weekend while the state waits for curved handrail lighting to be delivered and then close it again to install those final pieces.

That’s four ideas reached with a quick discussion in the newsroom, and journalists aren’t as handsomely paid as state administrators.

What are your thoughts? How frustrated are you at another delay in the bridge’s opening? Let us know at the email address below.

— The News and Tribune editorial board is comprised of Publisher Bill Hanson, Editor Shea Van Hoy, Assistant Editor Chris Morris and Assistant Editor Jason Thomas. Responses can be sent to shea.vanhoy@newsandtribune.com