I-Team: Bridges of Blue Island

March 27, 2014 (BLUE ISLAND, Ill.)

You don't have to go to New Jersey to find a story of bridges out, public backlash and political intrigue. The I-Team found another case of bridges to nowhere in one Chicago suburb for the last five years. To find out why, we take you to the intersection of Reality Road and Political Way.

Danny's Market Place in Blue Island has sold some big winning lottery tickets over the years. Now it's the once-busy neighborhood store that needs a jackpot. Business is hurting, and some blame the bridge.

"They had to lay me off, I stopped, it was sad," said Ted Lagen, former employee.

"There are a lot of businesses in Blue Island that are closing or closed or have taken their business and moved it elsewhere," said Michael Kelly, employee.

This is why: you can't get there easily. For five years, the Chatham and Division Street bridges, which connected key north-south access routes, have been completely closed.

According to these inspection reports, the bridges were condemned because they were falling apart and on the verge of falling down. But it's more than a produce problem. Here's the meat and potatoes: on the south end of the shuttered Division Street Bridge is a fire station that has had to find alternate routes. On the south end of the closed Chatham Bridge is a grade school that's now less accessible.

"It's very hard for us for the teachers and for the kids," said Aurora Reyes, crossing guard.

As the I-Team discovered, if you snake around the closed bridges in Blue Island, you're likely to get stuck waiting on a train. And then, adding to the misery and worry in January, a third bridge was hit, literally meaning that half the bridges in town were out.

"Anger. I said here it goes again, another bridge," said Domingo Vargas, mayor, Blue Island.

Vargas is Blue Island's new mayor. He tells the I-Team he didn't even know the Ashland Avenue Bridge had been hit until the Illinois Department of Transportation called, saying an IDOT snowplow had rammed a bridge support beam.

"I guess once IDOT realized one of their vehicles had substantial damage, uh, they spoke to the driver and he admitted the truck, I'm assuming the bed went up," said Vargas.

An IDOT spokesperson tells the I-Team the truck's bed was improperly raised and the employee involved has been terminated. But even though the bridge that carries 15,000 vehicles a day was damaged, it wasn't until 10 days later on January 15 that the bridge was officially shut down for emergency repairs.

The agency says that's because the now-fired employee was not forthcoming about what he actually hit. This week, after the I-Team began asking questions of state officials, the bridge reopened ahead of schedule, but only after extra worries for residents.

"It has caused a lot of problems for us traveling back and forth," said Michele Rivera, Blue Island resident.

And two bridges remain out of commission. Some blame a past administration that didn't have political allies to keep state and federal money flowing to the city. Vargas, a long-time city councilman was elected mayor last May, is pledging reform and better finances. He says political ally State Representative Bob Rita has helped secure $500,000 to get the Division Street Bridge reopened in 18 months.

ABC7's Chuck Goudie: "You had people who were willing to help you with this, get it done."
Vargas: "Correct. Yes."
Goudie: "And the previous administration didn't. Is that a fair assessment?"
Vargas: "Correct. Probably, or they didn't want to work with certain people."

Mayor Vargas says the $500,000 for the Division Street Bridge is just part of the price tag. The city will ultimately be responsible for $1.3 million for the repair. He's not revealing yet where that money will come from.

And an IDOT spokesman emphasizes that in years past, the department has been prepared to assist Blue Island with the planning and partial funding to reopen the bridges, but has never been taken up on the offer.

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