Kadner: Bridge in The Island may reopen
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org April 1, 2014 10:26PM
Supports stand rusted on the closed Chatham Avenue bridge in Blue Island. The Division Street bridge in the city also remains closed because of advanced deterioration. | File photo
Updated: May 3, 2014 6:32AM
A key bridge in Blue Island that has been shut down for five years could reopen in 18 months, according to state Rep. Robert Rita.
Rita, D-Blue Island, said the Illinois Department of Transportation has approved a $500,000 grant to launch an engineering study of a potential repair project for the Division Street bridge over the Calumet Sag Channel, a few blocks south of Vermont Street.
But after the study is done, cash-strapped Blue Island still would have to find more than $1 million to finance its portion of the repairs.
The closing of the bridge due to unsafe conditions caused by advanced deterioration long has been a source of community discontent and frustration because a major north-south roadway into the city has been inaccessible.
The Chatham Avenue bridge in Blue Island has been closed at least as long, and a third bridge, on Ashland Avenue, was shut down recently for repairs by IDOT.
An IDOT snowplow driver this winter apparently rammed a support beam on the Ashland Avenue bridge, but the driver failed to report the accident in a timely manner to his supervisor, who only determined what happened after finding that the snowplow was damaged. The city never was notified about the incident by IDOT.
The Ashland Avenue bridge has been repaired, but the other two bridges remain closed to vehicular traffic.
The story of the bridges actually goes back nearly a decade when engineers first notified city officials that the bridges needed to be repaired or replaced. Blue Island owns the bridges, a rather unusual situation, and has not had the money to replace them.
The issue not only is an inconvenience but something of a public safety hazard because a fire station is just south of the Division Street bridge.
Former Mayor Don Peloquin blamed Rita for failing to obtain state funds for the bridge repair project. Rita, in turn, claimed that Peloquin didn’t do enough to get help from IDOT.
Peloquin defeated Rita’s father, former Mayor John Rita Sr., to take control of Blue Island more than 20 years ago. In addition, Peloquin is a Republican and Rita a Democrat.
Mayor Domingo Vargas is a political ally of Rita, although Rita claims that has little to do with the current situation.
“The current mayor asked IDOT for help,” he said. “That’s the difference.”
But Rita has become one of the most influential legislators in Springfield during the past couple of years and recently was handed the sponsorship of the casino expansion bill.
Regardless of the local politics, the fact that two key bridges in a financially struggling city could be shut down for so long without any state transportation official intervening is almost unimaginable.
It’s not only Blue Island residents who have been inconvenienced but anyone trying to get to the city or traveling through it going north or south. Blue Island is immediately south of the Beverly and Morgan Park communities in Chicago.
Peloquin for years said the state was demanding matching funds for the Division Street bridge project and his city simply didn’t have the millions of dollars needed.
Blue Island has seen several merchants leave during the past few years, and while insufficient roads were not the primary factor, they certainly contributed.
But the lack of matching funds for public works projects such as roads and bridges is one reason that Rita has emphasized his interest in creating such a funding source for the south suburbs in any new casino bill.
One option in his bill would be for a mega casino in Chicago, owned by the state, that would share 1.5 percent of its annual revenue (or at least $6 million) with more than 40 Southland towns.
Rita said that money potentially would create a regional capital development fund overseen by the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.
“The money could just be distributed equally to all the suburbs, but it could all go into one pool to generate enough financing for large capital projects that these suburbs could otherwise not afford,” Rita said.
Suburbs such as Orland Park that have a large amount of sales tax revenue often are able to fast-track state road projects by offering to help pay for them.
Metra stations in Orland Park and Tinley Park look like palaces compared with those in poorer communities because those villages more than match the grants offered by Metra to build a station.
Critics may claim that’s an extravagance, but commuter rail stations encourage commercial and residential development nearby and create a first impression among commuters riding through town.
Yet, there’s no comparison between a flashy Metra station and a bridge closed due to unsafe conditions.
I sympathize with the exasperation expressed over many years by Blue Island residents who wondered why no one seemed to be looking out for their interests.
When local governments fail in such a crucial area, for whatever reason, state or federal officials ought to intervene.
And if a small suburb or city lacks the financial resources to make adequate transportation repairs and improvements, there needs to be a higher authority prepared to intervene on behalf of citizens.
Simply closing a bridge or a road and claiming that the safety of motorists is being protected is not enough.
The temptation, of course, is to dismiss this as another example of this state’s failure to act in a responsible manner. While there’s certainly reason for such cynicism, I refuse to let government officials off the hook so easily.
The notion that people living in suburbs beset by inept or corrupt political leaders, where the property tax is high and services negligible, are somehow to blame is almost medieval in its ignorance.
Political leaders ought to build bridges, not shut them down.