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
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
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.