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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, September 10, 2017 1:00 am


Cities look to bridge maintenance expenses

The decisions by Fort Wayne and New Haven to do their own bridge maintenance doesn't mean Allen County was doing a bad job on those spans.

“I'm not saying the county did anything wrong,” Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said in an interview Thursday, a few days after the two cities announced they would not be renewing an interlocal agreement with the county. Rather, he said, the decision was about controlling the decision-making process on repairs and keeping city money in the city's hands, where it could be earning interest and be available for emergencies.

If there is an issue that unites us all in these contentious times, it is the need to maintain our infrastructure. Bridges are particularly urgent and serious concerns; motorists who blithely drive over potholes cringe at the thought of a bridge with a hairline crack.

As a 2017 assessment of city and county bridges explains, many of the county's nearly 400 structures were built or replaced in the 1970s and are near the end of their projected lifespan. The report, prepared for the county by Engineering Resources of Fort Wayne andIndianapolis-based USI Consultants, lists 18 spans that need to be replaced within the next decade, and more than 50 that require varying degrees of rehabilitation, repair or maintenance. The total cost, the report estimated, would be almost $49 million.

Under a complex agreement in 2009, the county's wheel tax and license-plate surtaxes were raised, and its cities and towns agreed to pay the county for bridge repairs out of their share of the revenue. The annual charges, County Commissioner Nelson Peters explained in an interview Thursday, have remained the same. The new bridge assessment, which the county is required to have done every four years, pegged Fort Wayne's share of repair costs through 2025 at $24 million, Peters said, and New Haven's at $4.1 million. Then, said Peters, “all we did was take those numbers and divided by nine” to reach the cities' new annual assessments in a proposed new nine-year agreement.

Fort Wayne was notified that its bill would be doubling, from $1.35 million a year to $2.67 million, and New Haven's new annual assessment would skyrocket from $70,000 to $470,000.

Consulting with his Public Works Department and New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald, Henry said, he posed a question: “What's the advantage of using the county over the city? Why don't we just do it?” The two mayors agreed, he said, that they would look for ways to save money by working together, possibly even hiring a joint public engineer.

The decision not to renew the 2009 agreement, set to expire next month, appears to have been preceded by little discussion between the county and the cities, and no effort at negotiation.

Peters blamed “misinformation and lack of understanding” for the change and believes the county's experience and economies of scale made the currentarrangement a better deal for both cities. “I think the cities of Fort Wayne and New Haven should have been thanking the county for the great deal they'vegotten over the years,” he said.

But Henry, who said the county shared a spreadsheet of bridge projects with him but that he hasn't seen the consultants' full report, isn't concerned. “We do a lot of things with the county already, from a combined 911 to a combined planning and zoning,” he said. “It's just that in this particular matter, I'm not sure what has truly been gained.”

Now, it's up to Fort Wayne and New Haven to show their quick new arrangement can work.