Structures in disrepair leave no easy route

As if it couldn’t get worse on Interstate 65, where a bridge over the Wildcat Creek has been closed and state transportation officials couldn’t say when torturous detours would end, someone dared to utter these two chilling words: “Lindberg Road.”

Of course, Lindberg Road, which crosses the Celery Bog, was a West Lafayette nightmare, with a cycle of sink-close-repair-repeat for more than a decade before it was replaced four years ago by the bridge that stands there now.

Shudder to think, but is that what the driving public is in for this time, too, with I-65?

Maybe sensing the fear and dread accompanied by the question in the wake of a news conference, Anne Rearick, Indiana Department of Transportation’s director of bridges, quickly reeled in that scenario.

“This is a very different situation,” Rearick said, slightly shaking her head toward another INDOT official, as if to say: Let’s not use Lindberg Road as a reference point, again.

INDOT said Friday that it likely will be mid-September before repairs are completed on the bridge and the northbound lanes of I-65 are reopened near Lafayette.

Brandye Hendrickson, INDOT commissioner, offered an update at Purdue University’s Bowen Laboratory.

A quarter-mile away, trucks on U.S. 231 were crossing River Road, halfway through a winding detour that had been eased over the weekend by the addition of temporary traffic lights at key intersections but that was still gumming up hours in commute time.

Hendrickson said Gov. Mike Pence encouraged INDOT “to consider creative solutions” to get I-65 open again to the 24,000-plus vehicles that drive that section of northbound lanes each day.

But in reality, it could get worse. And not just for one particular I-65 bridge over the Wildcat Creek that has traffic tied up in knots.

Of the 5,600 bridges INDOT maintains, 6.4 percent of them have one or more elements that are in poor condition, according to inspections done every two years, said Will Wingfield, an INDOT spokesman. He said that because bridges deteriorate faster than the money comes in to fix them, in the next 10 years, the percentage of INDOT’s bridges rated “poor” is expected to climb to 12 percent.

And that’s with $274 million a year for bridge repair and maintenance, which Wingfield said was the priority for INDOT these days.

“That’s part of the conversation INDOT and our local partners are having with the legislature about what is the appropriate level of funding for transportation across the state and what the public expects in terms of bridge and pavement conditions,” Wingfield said.

What motorists expect are bridges that aren’t compromised. And right now, federal and state investments aren’t keeping up.

There’s a touch of irony, given complaints about the state being chintzy on road funding, in the fact that the dire nature of defects in the bridge over the Wildcat Creek were discovered while contractors were working to shore it up, all during a project that will bring three lanes to I-65 through Lafayette.

Same goes for the irony that so many other road projects are going on that there’s no easy way around the I-65 detour.

Construction’s happening. It’s just not keeping pace.

It’s scary when state officials admit that bridges have been slipping into disrepair right before the Indiana Department of Transportation’s eyes, without enough reason to start fixing them. Consider that INDOT knew the concerns about the I-65 bridge over the Wildcat Creek as early as 2005, according to bridge inspections.

Maybe the suspect third pier in the five-pier span would have been fine if new construction hadn’t disturbed it. Maybe the same goes for those other 364 bridges with poor ratings — the 6.4 percent in INDOT’s inventory — and they will hold steady, too. And as long as we’re playing that game, maybe the 672 bridges expected to be in poor condition a decade from now will cause no problems.

That’s a lot of maybe to try to hold up all that traffic.

The federal government hasn’t shown any willingness to raise additional cash for roads by adjusting an 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax that has been in place since 1993 and is used to finance highway projects. That could be an easy and justifiable fix in a time when the American Society of Civil Engineers gives American infrastructure a D grade. (Indiana does only slightly better with a D-plus.)

So it’s up to Indiana to, as Pence put it, get creative.

How much longer before Indiana comes across another situation like the one playing out on I-65 right now?

That’s another mysterious timeline that should make drivers shudder.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.