PEORIA — Each year when winter arrives, motorists crossing the Bob Michel Bridge see added reminders of the need to be cautious drivers.

Those come in the form of pedestrians trying to cross the bridge, forced onto the narrow shoulder of the road by snow piled high on the raised sidewalks over the Illinois River.

But a local planning group hopes to explore whether there's a better way to help bicyclists and people on foot traverse the bridge in all weather.

Officials at the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission are trying to build support to launch a feasibility study "to determine if there are any possible ways, short of structurally altering the bridge, to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists a bit more safely within the confines of the bridge," says Eric Miller, the group's executive director.

The bridge was built at a time that less attention was paid to pedestrian needs, and has seen increased use by people who cross over to shop or use other facilities on one side or the other of the river.

Under winter conditions, "that can't be comfortable for them," Miller said. "If you've got maybe a foot or so of snow (on the sidewalk) or you're confined to the shoulder area four feet wide and you've got cars coming at you at 40 miles an hour."

The state doesn't have funds set aside for a study on its own, but planning commission officials floated to their Illinois Department of Transportation counterparts the idea of independently going in search of the $40,000 to $50,000 needed to cover the cost, Miller said.

The interest also grew with construction of the new eastbound McClugage Bridge on the horizon, as well as the re-decking of the Murray Baker Bridge carrying Interstate 74 over the Illinois River.

The McClugage project will carry with it a dedicated lane for bicycles and pedestrians, feeding into trail networks in East Peoria and Peoria. The other, natural connection into those trails is near the Bob Michel Bridge, both Miller and East Peoria planning and development director Ty Livingston agreed.

"It does allow for pedestrian and bicycle access, but in my opinion it's still a little lacking in terms of the facilities itself," Miller said.

Officials on both sides of the river were supportive of finding out whether any changes are even structurally viable.

"I think there's definitely merit to taking a look at it," Livingston said. "... Certainly providing better options for alternative forms of transportation is a good thing."

He noted that continued development along the riverfront in both Peoria and East Peoria has changed the number of people living and shopping nearby to the bridge.

Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich agreed that the bridge sees "a fair amount" of foot and bicycle traffic.

"A dedicated bike/pedestrian lane would be a welcome addition that would provide safety for those traveling the bridge by foot or bicycle."

Urich also pointed to recent city work reconstructing the MacArthur Bridge with a dedicated bicycle lane.

If funds are found for the study and the results show a project is feasible, Miller said there's likely still a lengthy wait before changes are made.

Funds would have to be set aside for that. And the bridge isn't scheduled for any major rehabilitative work, so it could be well into next decade, five or 10 years down the line, if not more, before a project gets under way.

But asking the question today means being able to move onto the next phase.

"We're planners; we're supposed to be thinking long-term," Miller says.

Chris Kaergard can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.