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April 23, 2014

Meeting with INDOT yields no new Big Four opening date in Jeffersonville

State and city officials disagree on timeline of events

JEFFERSONVILLE — Even after a group of state transportation officials, local officeholders and a state legislator met to talk Big Four Bridge matters on Wednesday, the project’s opening date still remains a mystery.

The meeting among the Indiana Department of Transportation, Jeffersonville city officials and state Sen. Ron Grooms to discuss progress on installation of lighted handrails for the ramp came less than a week after the planned April 30 opening date was postponed for the pedestrian and cyclist bridge.

When asked for a safe opening date, INDOT Chief of Staff Troy Woodruff said that construction timelines are contingent on weather and therefore did not want to give a specific date.

“So the important thing is we kind of have a framework ... but you know that can always slide a little bit based on what happens,” Woodruff said.

INDOT expects straight railing installation finished by early next week, and a schedule of 10 days for delivery of curved lighted handrails and 20 working days for installment on.

Once the lighted railing is installed, the stairway can be blocked off and ramp can be opened.

“We understand you all are anxious to get this open. We’re just as anxious as you are,” Woodruff said. “I understand everybody’s frustration. There’s nobody here that does not want to get this done as quickly as possible because it’s going to be great.”

“At the same time, we want to be as safe as we can about it.”

Mayor Mike Moore, who was present at the meeting, said he did not expect INDOT to give a new opening date.

“I have expressed how I feel about INDOT and the lack of organization,” Moore said. “Nothing changed today.”

AN UNWELCOME STATEMENT

Moore’s frustrations reached their peak last Thursday when INDOT released a statement saying the April 30 opening of the bridge would have to be postponed.

Will Wingfield, INDOT spokesman, said the state had started installing permanent lighting and couldn’t risk liability of opening the bridge to pedestrian and cyclist traffic while construction was still ongoing. It also had a construction deadline to meet with Hummel Electric — the contracted company that is installing the lighted handrails.

The April 30 opening announcement was made at a special redevelopment meeting in March, when the board approved a change order for about $21,000 for temporary lighted handrails that would allow the bridge to open the Wednesday before Derby.

Corporation Attorney Les Merkley said that officials from INDOT drafted the change order and asked the redevelopment board to approve it in order to get the bridge open by that date.

“Basically, we did what INDOT told us to do,” said Merkley, who also raised the issues of liability to INDOT before the redevelopment meeting was set.

Jeffersonville City Engineer Andy Crouch said even though they had the change orders in hand, he double-checked with the state agency before making the announcement.

“Prior to that special redevelopment meeting, we literally two hours before, one hour before — I called the area engineer for INDOT and said, ‘Look, I’m about to take this to them, are we still good? Are we still good that we’re going to approve this change order, you guys are going to approve it?’” Crouch said. “The answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, we’re getting pressure from central office in order to do that.’”

Merkley said that about a week later, INDOT started backtracking on its promises.

In the week after the April 30 announcement was made, Merkley spoke with INDOT attorneys to find a way for the city to assume liability.

“The last conversation I had with [the attorney] which was last week, he said he had met with INDOT’s chief of staff on it, that it was now in the hands of  INDOT’s commissioner and it was an executive decision, but they did not feel that there were any legal issues that would prevent it from opening early,” he said. “And then next thing we know, we get a press release from INDOT stating, ‘We’re in control, get out of the way, we’re going to keep it closed.’”

Woodruff said he was not aware that INDOT had drafted the change order or urged the city of Jeffersonville to make an announcement for an April 30 opening.

He did say any change orders given to the city would have been more of an estimate and not set in stone.

“I think the big thing you can see is that there’s probably some confusion in terms of what they got and what our interpretation of that was,” he said.

Woodruff said that Merkley’s talks with INDOT attorneys about the city assuming liability were not a spoken promise that it could be done but rather a promise to look into the issue.

“I think what we gave them was our word that we would work toward trying to find a solution and then ultimately what we came back to was that we just couldn’t get it done,” Woodruff said. “We made a good faith effort to try to meet that, as we would make a good faith effort that if there’s any way humanly possible to get that ramp open sooner or as fast as we can, we’re going to do that.”

Despite the confusion, Woodruff said he hopes that people understand that INDOT means well.

“Shame on us for not being better communicators sometimes,” he said after INDOT’s meeting with the city Wednesday. “I think it came from a good place. We were trying to help them.”

MOVING ON

Grooms, a Republican from Jeffersonville who did not speak much during the meeting, said he was there Wednesday mostly to listen.

“My purpose was to gather information and better understand the scope of the project and to learn firsthand what the basic issues were,” said Grooms, who also said he did not expect a new opening date.

Four Jeffersonville city council members were present, some of whom voiced their opinions of the status of the project.

Councilman Mike Smith said that as someone who works in the trades, he understands the construction schedule of Hummel as well as INDOT’s contractual obligations with them.

“We are frustrated, but we understand your frustration. And we want it done, but we want it done the first time. We want it open, we want it safe,” Smith said. “I think speaking for at least the council, we want to be your partner, and whatever it takes to do that, we will do.”

Woodruff also expressed good will to Jeffersonville city officials.

“We’re not here to argue or fight or any of that stuff. We’re here to help you guys. We’ve made an investment down here in this area...” he said. “We feel like we’re your partner and we want to remain your partner.”

He said that he plans on having weekly meetings with the city until the bridge is opened unless there are not enough updates to warrant a full-fledged meeting, in which case INDOT would send a written status report.

Although Moore was mostly quiet Wednesday, he told the News and Tribune afterward that his disappointment with INDOT remains.

“[Clarifications don’t] change the fact that they broke the promise to the people of Kentucky, they broke the promise to the people of Indiana,” Moore said.

Because the lighted handrails are non-commercial and fit well in the historic Rose Hill neighborhood, some are quick to point fingers at the neighborhood’s residents. But Homeowners Association President Kate Miller said it doesn’t make sense to use Rose Hill as a scapegoat for delays.

The homeowner’s association first raised its preference for noncommercial lighted handrails before December 2012, where they met with INDOT and the city to agree on that preference.

“In our heads, our dealing with it has pretty much gone as planned. We really had nothing more to say after that,” Miller said, whose interactions with INDOT have been agreeable.

Nevertheless, she is just as disappointed about opening delays as any other Jeffersonville resident.

“I think it’s unfortunate. Today’s Waterfront Wednesday [in Louisville] and my partner and I would like to walk across the bridge and see a band,” she said. “It’s an inconvenience to everyone. I hope that the end product is good and we keep a good relationship with INDOT, and I think that’s where the city’s priorities should be because this is really a gift to Jeff. We’re spending pennies to the dollar.”

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Erin Klein, a nationally-recognized education blogger and Tom Murray, State and District Digital Learning Policy and Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., speak to a group of educators at Jeffersonville High School on Monday. They were just a couple of the big-name education personalities at the second annual Greater Clark Connected Conference.

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