'End of its repairable life': Old Illinois River bridge getting $128 million replacement

In this Journal Star file photo from October 2019, fall colors surround the Illinois Route 18 bridge across the Illinois River at Henry.
Gary L. Smith
Journal Star
  • The bridge was built in 1934 and hasn't seen renovations since 1988
  • A wider bridge could help vehicles and agricultural equipment alike
  • Downtown businesses are already sounding off about what construction could mean for them.

HENRY — One of the questions that Henry Mayor Jeff Bergfeld hears frequently from his fellow citizens is one that he can’t answer.

“The first question that I get asked is, ‘Where’s it going?’” Bergfeld said of the planned replacement of the Illinois River bridge over state Route 18 at Henry. “Everybody wants to know what the alignment’s going to be.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation plans the replacement by 2028 at an estimated total cost of $128 million.

It will be a while before the "where" question is answered, according to the lead IDOT engineer of the three-phase, multiyear replacement project, Mark Otten. The first phase of preliminary, non-construction work is happening now, and site options will be developed and evaluated by 2023.

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Here's what we know now about what's being discussed for the bridge, which IDOT has labeled an essential link for counties north of Peoria, what the public concerns are, and what the timeline is likely to be.

Why does the bridge need to be replaced?

First built in 1934, the bridge last saw major renovation in 1988. That rebuild brought a new concrete deck and other improvements to the structure, according to IDOT’s history of the bridge. But time has taken its toll.

“Since this last rehabilitation, vehicular use, weather and salt usage have caused deterioration to the structural steel and concrete that form the piers and deck,” the website states. ”Although the bridge has undergone extensive repairs, it is approaching the end of its repairable life.”

Cracked and crumbling concrete can be seen on the supports under the Illinois Route 18 bridge at Henry.

Besides the structural deterioration, other issues cited as calling for improvements include a narrow deck that doesn’t meet current design standards and can lead to increased collisions, and a current alignment in which flooding over Route 18 can cause road or bridge closure.

Bridge closures can have serious public safety implications by increasing response times for law enforcement or emergency services in a county divided by a river, Marshall County Sheriff Wayne Strawn has pointed out. And the narrow width can become especially problematic in planting and harvest seasons, when farm equipment often has to be escorted across both the Henry and Lacon river bridges.

“We do a lot of escorts,” Strawn said, referring to his department’s frequent cooperation with Henry and Lacon police. “Some of the new equipment is too wide for Henry and they have to come down to Lacon. It’d be nice to have a wider bridge in Henry.”

Giving the public a chance for input

The project's first phase, right now, includes a period in which extensive public input is gathered through a process called context-sensitive solutions. IDOT defines that as “a collaborative approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits into its surroundings and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility.”

That approach represents an evolution from some past practices, Otten said recently. Time was when IDOT would often develop and implement major plans after speaking with only a few people, he added.

“But nowadays we try to engage the public much earlier,” he continued. “The intent is to try to understand what the community’s values are ahead of time, and then we can try to adopt solutions to better match up with what the community wants.”

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Public involvement activities that have begun and will continue include interviews with stakeholders in the region, meetings of a broad-based community advisory group and public meetings, as well as a project website and a newsletter.

The 24-member CAG held its first meetings in June and July, with others tentatively planned for December and then April and December 2022.

The first public meeting, which involved no formal presentations but featured exhibit boards with IDOT personnel and consultants to answer questions, was held Aug. 25, and another is planned for next summer. A public hearing focused specifically on environmental matters will be held in the fall of 2022.

'Bridge traffic is critical to the businesses'

The CAG includes municipal and county officials, representatives of area business and industry, agricultural interests, city residents and officials from police and emergency service agencies and the local school district. Attendance has been good and participation has been active, said Bergfeld.

At the first meeting, members were asked to rate the relative importance of 15 different variables that could be considered in a new bridge alignment. Three factors far outscored all the others, according to a summary of the meeting on the website:

  • The existing bridge should remain open during construction of a new one.
  • Bridge traffic is critical to the businesses in downtown Henry.
  • A new bridge approach on the Henry side should keep existing intersections open and not “wall off” or close access to streets.

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Those ratings reflected “the importance of impacts upon the business community,” the summary noted. And that was also reflected when members were asked to visualize  new bridge alignments by sketching one on a map, Bergfeld recalled.

“I think for the most part, everyone’s opinion was that we want to keep the traffic as close to the present route as possible,” he said, “just so we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by taking traffic out of downtown.”

Will the community be heard?

A school bus crosses the Illinois River on the aging Route 18 bridge at Henry on Oct. 24, 2019. The Illinois Department of Transportation has earmarked $128 million to replace the rusty, narrow bridge by 2028.

Henry Alderman Doug Johnson, who is also a member of the CAG, had stressed the importance of the third point, leading it to be added to the survey at that June meeting. And it was also his request that a second CAG meeting be held in July rather than waiting for the one planned later in the year.

“Basically, my feeling was, our involvement was somewhat limited (with just one meeting),” he said. “If we wanted to have our voices heard, I just think the more input the public can have, especially us in our roles as leaders of the community, the better.”

And is the community being heard?

“They keep telling us that it is. They’ve said several times that our input is valuable,” Johnson replied. “But when we get to bridge type and where the bridge hits the land, when we get to the decision on those types of critical questions, that’s where the rubber meets the road, and that’s when we’ll know whether we were heard or not.”

The replacement process

Officially, IDOT is studying “a range of potential improvements” during Phase I and has not conclusively ruled out repair or reconstruction of the existing bridge, Otten said. That decision will come from a final condition report that is now circulating within the agency, he added.

But everything so far points toward new construction, he acknowledged. And that’s reinforced by such factors as references to the bridge nearing “the end of its repairable life” and the fact that CAG discussions have already focused on possible alignments of a new bridge.

“The talk so far has all been about a complete replacement,” Bergfeld said. “They have not determined what the alignment is going to be, but they’ve already said that this bridge is going to have to be higher, and therefore it’s going to have to be longer.”

Rust covers significant portions of girders on the Illinois Route 18 bridge crossing the Illinois River at Henry.

The project is fully funded from a variety of sources, Otten said. The estimated $128 million total breaks down as $17 million for engineering, $2 million for land acquisition and $1 million for utility adjustment, along with $108 million for the actual construction.

Generally speaking, no local funding is entailed in such a project, Otten said. That would typically occur only if the bridge included, for instance, a requested decorative design or plaque, he said — perhaps something like Bergfeld’s suggestion at a meeting that it might be named after Capt. John Philip Cromwell, a Henry native who received the Medal of Honor for service as a World War II submarine commander.

An effort to respond to local interests is “one of the reasons that we try to get input early,” Otten said. “It’s always easier to incorporate things along the way rather than after the fact.”

Understanding the timeline

Additional work during the current first phase will include preliminary engineering and environmental studies designed to develop and evaluate alternative plans. A team of IDOT engineers and outside consultants will study existing conditions, such as traffic data and crash history, and also document environmental issues. An environmental study is mandated on any project utilizing federal funds.

The selection of a preferred alternative is expected at or near the end of this first phase, which will be followed by a second phase in which IDOT will develop a full plan and acquire any land needed for the project. 

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The target period for actual construction is 2026–27, with completion in 2028, though such projections can be far from certain at this early stage, Otten emphasized.

“That is the million-dollar question at this stage, because there can be so many things that change.” Otten said.

Extensive information about the project, including the CAG membership and meeting schedules, can be found at IL18RiverBridgeProject.com. It’s also possible to submit questions or comments and to sign up for a project newsletter.

Gary L. Smith can be reached at (800) 516-0389 or glsmith@mtco.com. Follow him on Twitter @Glsmithx.