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Bridge funding falling through?

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City and county officials are trying to salvage a plan to move a historic bridge from Newbern to the Columbus People Trail near 25th Street after a state agency pulled federal funding for the project.

County officials have asked the Indiana Department of Transportation to reconsider funding for the reconstruction project in 2017 and beyond, while city officials are pressuring the state agency to rescind its decision to revoke the already-approved funding for rebuilding the bridge.

Bartholomew County plans to replace the aging Newbern bridge on County Road 850E over Clifty Creek next year, and Columbus officials intend to reconstruct the historic structure across Haw Creek at Lincoln Park, south of 25th Street. Because of the bridge’s historic status as one of the few camelback steel-truss bridges left in the state, the county must agree to rebuild the span at a new location within five years, County Engineer Danny Hollander said.

City officials plan to make the bridge part of future Mill Race Marathon routes, but the construction schedule will make that impossible for 2014, Hollander said.

Construction on the new bridge was scheduled to begin early in 2014, but it has since been pushed past the date of the September race through Columbus. Up to $1.6 million in funding for the replacement project is still in place; but whereas the two projects used to be tied closely together, the state has separated the funding between replacing the old bridge and rebuilding it, Hollander said.

The county originally considered rebuilding the bridge over Anderson Falls in the county park there. But when that became impractical, the city offered to use the structure as part of the People Trail.

Despite a November 2012 memorandum among the city, county and state authorities that the community would receive $584,000 in funding for the reconstruction project over Haw Creek, last December the state pulled that funding.

“Part of our argument with the state is that they signed off on that memorandum of agreement as well,” Hollander said. “Now that they are taking away the financing for that, they are subject to that contract, too.”

The funding for the bridge reconstruction was approved in 2004 but was repeatedly delayed. The county has been trying to replace the now-103-year-old bridge since 1999. Delays have resulted from archaeological digs, historic studies and problems sorting out who owns various pieces of the right-of-way.

Earlier this month, Hollander again added the bridge reconstruction to a list of requests for future federal funding, but there is a problem with that request already, he said. The county dips into a pot of funding that is for rural areas, yet because the county bridge would be reconstructed in the city, it might not be eligible for the rural funding, he said.

Laurence Brown, director of the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, sent a letter to INDOT in October urging the agency to reconsider the funding removal. Since then, city officials have met with INDOT officials and have learned that INDOT officials thought the project was not moving forward because of the many delays.

Brown said it appears that the environmental and planning departments within INDOT are not in agreement.

“The planning department is trying to figure out ways to fund projects and looking for things that aren’t moving forward,” Brown said. “And the environmental department is making agreements to make sure that the laws of historic preservation and other archaeological requirements are met. This agreement met those (requirements) and was signed by the environmental department.”

The memorandum of understanding between the agencies was signed in November 2012, and it contained a phrase specifically linking the reconstruction to INDOT funding. A month later, INDOT pulled the funding for the relocation, Brown said. The only way to make the old bridge reconstruction financially feasible is with the state-controlled funding, he said.

“It is a huge burden to find a place to put this bridge, which is why it has taken a long time,” Brown said. “They have had to look at numerous alternatives; and then, of course, whoever receives it has to agree, and there are some obstacles they have to deal with, some costs they have to deal with.”

He said that the city intends to pursue the trail expansion. But without federal funding for the reconstruction, it would be cheaper to build a new $250,000 pedestrian bridge.

“It is a high priority project for the city, and we don’t want to wait until 2017 before that money is available for us,” Brown said.

INDOT officials could not be reached for comment this week.

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