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Officials ponder best site for new Milltown bridge

There’s an old saying, ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’ But the question for Milltown residents is: Where will that bridge be?
Representatives of the engineering firm URS, hired by the Harrison County Board of Commissioners last year, appeared at a special Crawford County Board of Commissioners meeting last Tuesday night at Milltown to review various options for a new bridge.
Following the informational session at the town hall, they took those attending, including town officials and residents, and all three Harrison County commissioners on a walking tour of the proposed sites of a new, two-lane bridge joining the counties.
Included was a stroll down Main Street, where URS engineers pointed out the height the street will be raised to at various points on the Crawford County side of town, which routinely is susceptible to flooding from Blue River, if a new bridge was built in the same location as the existing one-lane structure.
The street would be raised eight feet at its intersection with Mill Street. Bob Cast, who owns a small restaurant across from the intersection, said that would be the wrong decision for the small town.
‘It would just wipe out the downtown section here,’ he said.
The street would decline to its current level by the time it reached the Cave Country Canoes parking area. However, despite the bridge and approach being out of the 100-year flood plain, that would still leave that portion of the street vulnerable to flooding, making the bridge impassable.
A second option of constructing a new bridge about 50 feet upstream from the current structure would have many of the same problems. Because of that, the consensus among most of the 20 or so people attending was that a third option, which would build the bridge on the north end of the downtown, would be best.
A structure there would utilize piers from an old railroad bridge. Main Street on the Harrison County side of town would be realigned slightly to the north and the bridge would connect on the Crawford County side with what is now Legion Way. That option would require more approach work, driving up the costs, but would keep the bridge passable during a flood.
Besides the cost, the other potential major negative is traffic would be routed away from current businesses. However, Cast said he isn’t as worried about that as he is about the problems caused from raising the street eight feet in front of his restaurant.
‘It would affect us some, but not as much as the (eight feet),’ he said.
Harrison County Commissioner James Goldman, who represents his county’s side of Milltown, said he didn’t think there would be much of an effect on businesses, because most of the people who are visiting those establishments, such as the Blue River Caf’ and Cave Country Canoes, are coming to town expressly for that purpose.
J.R. Eckart, chair of the Harrison County Commissioners, said he tends to favor that option because it won’t be affected by flooding.
‘That leans pretty heavy to me on the safety aspect and the welfare of the citizens,’ he said, noting emergency vehicles will still be able to cross the bridge if the other section of town floods. ‘So, I’m trying to find something negative about this, one I’m not seeing.’
The project is to be funded through an 80/20 grant, meaning the two counties would be responsible for 20 percent of the entire cost. The counties are responsible for the entire preliminary engineering costs, but that amount may count for up to half of the match amount.
Harrison County has tentatively agreed to pay 60 percent of that 20 percent regarding the bridge construction costs, with Crawford County picking up the remaining 40 percent. That has been the traditional agreement between the two counties when completing a bridge project together.
There is debate, however, on whether that agreement would also include additional approach work outside of the amount of footage typically included in a bridge project, or if each county would be solely responsible for the extra footage on its side of the river. Earlier, the Harrison County Commissioners seemed to favor the latter scenario but last Tuesday appeared more willing to share more of the burden.
‘My personal opinion is if you’re going to do it, the entire project should be split,’ because without the approaches, the bridge isn’t as valuable, said Crawford County Commissioner Larry Bye, whose district includes that side of the town.
While the engineers asked for guidance on which option to pursue in more detail, Randy Gilmore, president of the Crawford County commissioners, said more information about the favored railroad bridge option is needed first. He expressed concern that the ground for the approach may need quite a bit of work, as he wasn’t sure what type of fill material the railroad used when building it in the late 1800s.
‘You would never know close to the cost’ of the project without core testing the land, he said.
Milltown Town Council President Curt Hudson said the majority of residents to have expressed an opinion seem to favor building a bridge utilizing the railroad piers. However, he said, most, out of a sense of history, want to see the current bridge preserved, possibly converted into a walking bridge. He said one business owner has said he would pay to turn the structure into a covered bridge.
If the bridge was saved, the town would likely have to assume the liability and maintenance costs, because the Crawford County commissioners, whose inventory the bridge is listed, have indicated they wouldn’t want the financial responsibility.