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August 22, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Rose-Hulman bridge design would let people walk, run, ride across Wabash River

TERRE HAUTE — Four months, 500 miles and 18 towns.

In the course of compiling the “500 Miles of Wabash” series, which concludes this Sunday, Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis and I heard valuable insights from dozens of people who live, work and recreate along Indiana’s state river. One comment seems particularly relevant to Terre Haute, especially as the ongoing 2013 Year of the River celebration stirs ideas. The quotation affirms the potential of a stellar proposal this community ought to consider.

On a mild Tuesday morning in May, Ted Ellis was describing the skepticism about a Wabash River project that became a reality in his own Indiana town of Bluffton, where he happens to be the mayor. Ellis’ words just as easily could be applied to Terre Haute, a city six times larger than Bluffton (population 9,990). In the 1980s, long before Ellis became mayor, Bluffton took the then-bold step of building its Wabash River Greenway, a scenic, 2.5-mile path paralleling the stream. The greenway has since been extended and has spawned other riverside enhancements there.

As Ellis spoke while sitting in a small riverbank park, numerous people ambled by on the greenway — seniors, young joggers, pairs of moms pushing strollers.

“The hardest sell was to put the greenway in place in the beginning,” Ellis said. “A lot of people in the ’80s said, ‘Nobody will ever use that thing,’ [but] they did. It’s like the old phrase, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and they did. [Now], you’ll find people who’ll say, ‘I thought that it was the stupidest thing ever, but I love it now.’”

Seconds later, retired Indiana state trooper Ted Biberstine, walking with his wife, stopped and said, “There was a lot of skepticism but I didn’t have any. [The greenway] is one of the great things about Bluffton.”

Which brings us to the stellar proposal Terre Haute should consider.

Earlier this year, five Rose-Hulman civil engineering students unveiled their design for a double-faceted Banks of the Wabash Heritage Trail. First, it would create a riverfront trail from First and Canal streets to Fairbanks Park. Second, the students’ plan features a “cantilever” pedestrian bridge across the Wabash. The cantilever bridge would attach to the south side of the eastbound Dreiser Memorial Bridge.

In a nutshell, their proposal would let people walk, run or bike beside the Wabash or over it. The twin Paul Dresser and Dreiser bridges include a walkway, but the cantilever bridge would be a safer option for folks who walk or bicycle between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. The Rose students’ plan would allow the National Road Heritage Trail to eventually extend south to Interstate 70 and west toward the Wabashiki wetlands and Illinois.

It would removes barriers to Terre Haute’s most famed natural asset for, well, Hauteans and prospective visitors.

The cost would be $1,228,900 — $658,700 for the riverbank trail, and $570,200 for the cantilever bridge across the Wabash. The cantilever concept would cost far less than building a new stand-alone pedestrian bridge.

“It’s an extremely cost-effective way to facilitate that,” said Kevin Sutterer, associate professor of civil engineering at Rose-Hulman and head of that department.

The students — then-seniors Zack Howe, Evan Land, Brian Weiner, Caleb Nickels and Adam Carlson — prepared the design as their senior project for Pat Martin, chief planner for the city of Terre Haute’s engineering department. Martin has pitched several community projects to Rose seniors during the past decade, a connection that benefits the future engineers and the community. This group, guided by Rose faculty mentor Jeremy Chapman, “was extraordinary,” Sutterer said.

It is quite detailed. They studied existing structures, impediments and future plans, such as Indiana State University’s intention to build athletic facilities west of Third Street. On the riverbank trail, they chose a “bank cut-in” format with an L-shaped, paved path and a railing to continue the trail under the two bridges.

The students also used their own eyes and perception. They added the cantilever bridge on their own, after noticing numerous people walking and bicycling across the Wabash on the traffic-busy Dresser and Dreiser bridges. “Certainly, this would make a much safer crossing,” Sutterer said.

Such an amenity would benefit Terre Haute in multiple ways, turning the Wabash into a destination.

“It opens up the riverfront to riverbank tourism,” Martin said.

“I would be delighted to see that happen,” added Sutterer. “It would be so good for the community.”

Turning the students’ work into reality would take time. The Indiana Department of Transportation would have to agree that the trail and bridge are needed and that the benefits outweigh the cost, Martin explained. City and county officials also would have to approve it. Patient commitment would be necessary. The project could extend into the next decade.

Next month, Martin will present the plan to the leaders of Riverscape, a local nonprofit group advocating Wabash beautification and development.

Support from the general public is crucial, too.

“If there is a community consensus on doing something like this,” Martin said, “this is the first step in the process.”

The Rose students’ ingenuity is a great local resource. So is the Wabash. The community should utilize both.

Today’s skeptics might turn out to be believers.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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