DAVENPORT, Iowa — Two bridges crossing the Mississippi River, spanning from the banks of Bettendorf to Moline, represent over 100 years of history. They sit close together, graceful arches butted up against dark, rigid towers. One sits empty, while the other is filled with cars crossing state lines. Just a few months ago, their positions were switched.
The Quad-Cities entered a new era in December when the new I-74 bridge fully opened and the old bridge closed for good. What once inspired annoyance in many and even terror in some, now gives people an easy, convenient and safe route between Illinois and Iowa. It took decades, but both sides of the river and beyond came together to see it through until today, the Quad City Times reports.
“It takes time, so we all believed in it,” said Bi-State Regional Commission Executive Director Denise Bulat. “We had support from everyone, and that’s why it became reality.”
While the work isn’t done yet, here’s a look back at what it took to get these bridges made, and what is to come of both of them in the future.
Before 1935, the only methods of crossing the Mississippi River in the Quad-Cities were on a ferry or over the Government Bridge, from Davenport to Rock Island. As vehicles became more available and the area’s population grew, one local entrepreneur saw an opportunity to provide an efficient way over the river and generate revenue.
According to an Iowa Historic Property Study submitted to the Iowa DOT and State Historic Preservation Office in 2012, William P. Bettendorf, the man who founded Bettendorf Co. and the City of Bettendorf, first had the idea to build a private toll bridge between Bettendorf and Moline. Tallgrass Historians L.C., based in Iowa City and now known as Tallgrass Archeology LLC, conducted the study.
Bettendorf began working to build the Iowa-Illinois Memorial bridge in 1907, a year after the General Bridge Act of 1906 made it legal for private citizens to build bridges as business ventures. With official permission from Congress through the “Bettendorf Bridge Bill,” the Moline and Bettendorf Bridge Co. was ready to go.
But Bettendorf’s death in 1910 halted any momentum the project had. The Moline and Bettendorf Bridge Co. couldn’t raise enough money to begin building, and it wasn’t until 1927 that growing populations and traffic brought the idea back into the Quad-Cities’ minds.
In the end, neither the cities of Bettendorf or Moline even built the bridge. It was the city of Davenport that partnered with a group of businessmen to help them finance the venture, as the stock market crash in 1928 made it impossible for the entrepreneurs to finance it on their own and Moline refused the franchise.
The newly formed Davenport Bridge Commission handled the project, after the franchise was shifted from local interests to the city in 1931.
Even after gaining necessary approvals, the project had its fair share of hiccups. The original bridge design was met with protest, as it was too close to Arsenal Island and not tall enough to allow certain ships to navigate under it.
After a redesign was approved by the U.S. War Department, construction was further delayed by the city’s quest to receive a loan of $1.25 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a federal loan agency created to help businesses survive the Great Depression.
Iowa Rep. Bernhard Jacobsen had introduced a bill to the U.S. House of Representatives to extend the timing of the beginning and completion of the bridge to give time for the loan to come through, but the application was denied. The bill wasn’t signed until 1933.
Moline served as the final obstacle to bridge construction. In July 1933 the Moline City Council voted to oppose the project, as they felt they hadn’t been included in its creation or plans. The Davenport Bridge Commission agreed to pay for street improvements for Moline’s bridge approach, and construction began in July 1934.
On Nov. 18, 1935, the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge opened to the public. Tolls charged passenger vehicles and light trucks 15 cents, heavy trucks 30 cents, and pedestrians using the bridge sidewalk 5 cents.
Once the bridge and construction on either side of it were complete, the Davenport Bridge Commission thought the work done. There were no plans to build onto it, until almost 20 years later.
By 1951, an average of almost 9,000 cars were passing over the bridge every day, an increase of over 500% from 1935. Since the bridge had opened, development in Bettendorf, Moline and East Moline had exploded due to the new transportation corridor, creating congestion on the bridge.
Luckily, the toll had brought in around $410,000, which the bridge commission could use to build a twin span, with little other funding needed. They received government approval to build the second span in 1952, but not at the local level. Bettendorf wanted veto power on where the twin span was going to go, Moline once again wanted money to fund street changes, and both towns were worried about buildings getting torn down again.
Despite these objections, the project moved forward. Construction began on the new span, placed just west of the original, in July 1958 and finished in November 1959.
Five years later, it was incorporated into Interstate 74. The federal government did away with the bridge’s tollbooth and sidewalk and gave it new connection spans and on-and-off ramps. The bridge reopened to the public in 1974, and was finished through Moline in 1975.
After another 20 years with the I-74 bridge in operation, it once again became overwhelmed by traffic. This is when the idea for a whole new bridge came about.
From the first look at the old I-74 bridge to now, with the new I-74 bridge project almost complete, the Quad-Cities has seen 20 mayors, 16 county board chairs, and nine district engineers from the Iowa and Illinois Departments of Transportation. An average of 450 people a day worked on the whole corridor in the four-and-a-half years of major construction, and more work is still to be done.
Iowa DOT District Transportation Planner Sam Shea said he doesn’t think there’s been any other project quite like this one. He’d never worked on a project with such size and scale, and the sheer number of organizations involved and all the work that had to be done made the process long and sometimes complicated.
Shea still has a Moline Police Department T-shirt, bearing the phrase “I survived the zipper merge.”
“I think the Quad-Cities residents have been hugely supportive and hugely understanding,” Shea said. “I mean, this thing came with a mess of traffic concerns, and folks in the Quad-Cities have been really good about tolerating all of the changes and moving along with it.”
Now they can reap the benefits, almost 30 years after it all began.
Denise Bulat, executive director of the Bi-State Regional Commission, said it all started in 1994. The Illinois Department of Transportation had asked about a holistic study of bridge needs from Interstate 280 to Interstate 80, and the bi-state commission agreed.
Traffic congestion on the I-74 bridge was a major problem, as it was designed to only handle around 48,000 vehicles a day rather than the 80,000 it was actually seeing.
“In the early days of this, we were faced with narrow structures as well as substandard ramps and accident histories and histories of long delays and the like,” said I-74 Bridge Corridor Project Manager George Ryan.
In order to see where people preferred crossing the river, the consultant handling the study recorded the license plates of vehicles crossing each bridge then sent postcard surveys to their corresponding addresses, asking where the drivers are from and where they were headed. This data created what Bulat called “desire lines,” which showed the densest areas of preferred travel.
It showed that the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge by far had the most travel. The Centennial Bridge, connecting Davenport and Rock Island, had the second-highest density of desire lines, but it was also a toll bridge at the time, which Bulat said may have affected people’s decision to use it.
The major investment study ended in 1998, and it was determined that something needed to be done about the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge. However, they looked at other avenues before deciding a new bridge was needed.
“It was an iterative process, where you could see that there was interest, there was a need, there was a lack of capacity…” Bulat said. “It wasn’t until after (the study) it was determined it really needed to be reconstructed.”
Unlike in the 1930s, getting approval and funding for a new bridge over the Mississippi River took more than just drafting bills and asking for approval. From 1999 to 2005 they conducted an environmental impact study to show what sort of footprint doing away with one bridge and adding another would have on the local ecosystem. This is where the mussels came in.
The study found a freshwater mussel bed right in the construction zone, containing three different federally endangered species. In the end, divers relocated around 140,000 mussels. Factors like water level changes, businesses and other structures that would have to come down, and ensuring the waterway would remain navigable also went into the study.
In 2008 the study was finalized, and in 2009 the Federal Highway Administration accepted the project. Up until this point, local and state officials as well as the Bi-State Regional Commission were doing all they could to find funding for the project. The studies, contracts and construction all came to cost over $1 billion.
As the Quad-Cities looked on, Bettendorf and Moline prepared for the new bridge. From 2009 to 2018 both sides of the river worked on improving and building roads heading for the bridge, demolishing buildings, constructing on and off-ramps and deciding how everything was going to look. Finally, in 2018, construction on the bridge itself began.
2019 proved a hard year for construction, with both the polar vortex and record flooding making conditions dangerous. The decision to maintain traffic on the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge also slowed things down a bit, but Bulat said it was essential that they let residents still have some method of transport from Moline to Bettendorf.
Throughout the whole project, the most vital practice was communication.
DOTs, local governments and other agencies had to communicate with each other on every decision, from language in studies to documents while lobbying for funds to construction plans. The Bi-State Regional Commission, Ryan in his role as the corridor manager, and others helped facilitate that communication with each other and the public.
Quad-Cities residents needed to be informed as well, and were routinely asked for their feedback on different aspects of the project. The iconic arches were overwhelmingly preferred by the public out of the project management team’s options, and now they stand against the sky.
When first drafting construction plans, Illinois DOT Program Development Engineer Rebecca Marruffo said the timeline stretched over eight years. Different agencies and engineers from across the country came together to brainstorm ways to shorten the construction time, eventually settling on closing one direction of traffic on the old bridge to leave more space for construction.
“This was a really unique thing, it’s not a typical approach,” Marruffo said. “It was not an easy decision, and we really had to evaluate it and go through a lot of processes, including public meetings, and other steps to make sure that that was going to work. But ultimately, it was a good decision because it allowed us to expedite the completion of the project.”
There’s already been a marked improvement on traffic from Bettendorf to Moline, Ryan said. He’s gotten comments from residents who find it much easier to cross the river than on the old bridge, and plenty of people are excited for its amenities.
Now, there isn’t much more to finish. The pedestrian lane on the bridge is near completion, and in the future will connect trail systems on both sides of the river. Bettendorf’s bridge elevator will ferry bicyclists and pedestrians up to the walkway, and public spaces in Bettendorf and Moline will welcome everyone.
The contract for the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge demolition will be let in spring 2022, almost 90 years after it first opened.
Every decision came together to make the I-74 Bridge project work, Bulat said. If communication and collaboration hadn’t been on par with what was needed, if all local, state and federal agencies, as well as the public, hadn’t worked together, if they didn’t all believe in it, the old bridge would still be straining under the weight of handling too much traffic.
“When you start on a project where you’re just looking at the environmental impacts, and looking at how to fund it, and it is lines on a map in pretty pictures, you start to wonder, how long is this going to take? Are we going to see the end of this? And is it going to come to fruition like we expect it?” Shea said. “In this case it did… The end result is it’s pretty impressive.”
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