Here's my 2 cents on the Milton-Madison Bridge project

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By Phyllis McLaughlin

I’m not really what you’d call a gambler, but I do enjoy going to Belterra on occasion to play video poker. I never take much to spend – or, I should say, lose; I’m fully aware of my limitations.

It’s a good thing, too. A month ago, I would have bet everything I own that the last option Milton-Madison Bridge Project officials ever would choose was to rebuild the bridge superstructure on the existing piers. After experiencing the two brief weekend bridge closings in late July and early August, I couldn’t see state officials making a decision that would leave our two communities without a span over the Ohio River for any extended period.

I would have lost it all.

This seems to be the route officials want to take, even though they claim that the other options are still on the table. That will change, in my opinion, if Kentucky and Indiana transportation officials win the $95 million federal stimulus grant they will apply for later this month.

If the money is there, they will rebuild. I’m certain of this. To use yet another cliché, the writing truly is on the wall. It is highly unlikely, no matter how much any of us wanted it, that we would have gotten funding for a brand-new bridge linking Milton, Ky., to Madison, Ind., anytime soon. The money wasn’t there 30 years ago when people first started thinking and talking about the project. It wasn’t there in 1997, when extensive structural work was needed. Instead, the bridge deck was replaced.

The cost of building a new bridge is a substantial amount of money – ranging from $189 million to more than $200 million, officials say. And let’s face it: We are a rural population. We are way farther down the “food chain” from Louisville, Northern Kentucky and the Evansville, Ind.-Henderson, Ky., areas – much larger population areas that also are clamoring for new bridges. State Sen. Ernie Harris told me he doubts he’ll live long enough to see any of those projects completed, much less a brand-new Milton-Madison bridge built.

My first inclination was to say, “No way!” to the idea of rebuilding the bridge on the existing piers. I was on vacation and unable to attend the Aug. 13 meeting in which officials told Project Advisory Group members that this was what they wanted to try to do. I was incensed that people I had counted on to disagree with such an absurd plan all seemed to have “drank the Kool-Aid” and opted to support the idea – however grudgingly they gave that support.

But, after talking extensively with project manager John Carr of Wilbur Smith Associates (the engineering consultant firm hired to help with the project) and our local and state officials, I have changed my mind. Grudgingly.

As a Milton resident who does much of her shopping in Madison, Ind., being without a bridge will be difficult. There is no way around that. The ferries will be nice, and I’m glad the states have agreed to offer them at no charge to travelers.

But I see how it will affect my friends and neighbors, my family and all of our readers’ lives. My stepson and his wife live in Madison, and he commutes daily to his job in Carrollton; I know others who have close relatives on either side of the Ohio. I know many other people whose commutes to work involve crossing that bridge daily.

There are plenty of negatives to this situation.

But, there are some positives. First, in the end, we will have a beautiful new bridge that will fit in historically, because it will look much like the one we have today. It will be wider and safer to cross, and likely will have pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes – two things that I think are very much needed and will be greatly appreciated.

Second, if the funding comes through in January, project officials say it likely will be February 2011 before the existing bridge is closed and dismantled. That’s almost a year and a half to plan for the nine to 12 months they say it will be until the new span is completed. (I still have my doubts about that, too. But that’s another column.)

Trimble County Judge-Executive Randy Stevens already has said he wants to start having meetings with area employers – particularly the industrial plants – to work together to stagger shifts at their locations. Doing so would mean not all of the folks who work at these plants would get off work – or have to be at work – at the same time. It would go a long way to eliminate a “rush hour” traffic situation that would clog local highways and lead to impossibly long lines of cars waiting to cross by ferry.

Personally, I can see industries going a bit further and providing “van pools” to pick up employees from designated parking areas and take them to and from work. That would increase capacity of the ferries immensely. Consider the idea of, say, a dozen cars crossing on a ferry with maybe 20 people total as opposed to a dozen vans with 12-14 passengers each.

Additionally, area businesses have plenty of time to decide how they can stay afloat – particularly those in downtown Milton. They may be hardest hit; however, if business owners there are creative, they may find entrepreneurial opportunities they may never, otherwise, have considered.

Like the Rolling Stones song says, “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

No. This isn’t the option most of us want. But it could give us the new bridge we need.

Phyllis McLaughlin is editor of The Trimble Banner.