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'It's been part of my whole career' | Reflecting on what it's taken getting to the I-74 Bridge Opening Day

The new Interstate 74 Bridge with wider lanes for traffic, a billion-dollar price tag and a nearly 30-year timeline is set to reopen to the public.

MOLINE, Ill — It's taken nearly 30 years and around $1 billion to finish the new I-74 bridge, but it's finally set to reopen to the public in early December, following a public celebration on Dec. 1st. 

"It's an iconic structure, it's a piece of art, and we are so proud of that," said Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn.

"The main thing it brings to people in the Quad Cities is a reliable crossing of the river, where you don't have to guess each day am I going to be able to get across the bridge without delay or not?" said Doug Rick, former I-74 project manager with the Iowa Department of Transportation.  

Work on the I-74 corridor project actually began back in 1995, according to Bi-State Regional Commission Executive Director Denise Bulat. A study first determined three "crossing needs" in the Quad Cities, including the removal of tolls on Centennial Bridge, the construction of a new bridge between East Moline and Bettendorf and the widening of the I-74 Bridge. 

However, because of the old bridge's suspension structure, Bulat mentioned lanes weren't an option. 

"We knew we needed to add lanes, there are not full shoulders on the lanes, so when a crash occurred on the bridge, it stopped all traffic," she said. "The other thing about it was that the ramps that get you onto the bridge were too close together. And they merged onto the bridge very quickly and didn't allow a vehicle to merge into the existing traffic that was already on the bridge, which made the number of crashes on the old I-74 Bridge much higher than other structures of its kind on the interstate system."

The old bridge was built to handle 48,000 cars a day and couldn't handle the 80,000 a day that were then driving on it. The Iowa-bound bridge was completed in 1935 and the Illinois one in 1959.

Rick remembers when he first heard about the project, and the plans to build a new bridge with wider lanes. It's around two and a half times wider than the old bridge and 84-feet taller. 

"The project size is almost overwhelming, it's hard to imagine, how do you go about doing something like this?" Rick said. 

He was used to working on projects in the million dollar range, not at a billion. 

"What always concerned me is we're talking a lot of money here, more money than that was readily available," he said. "I mean, we were talking major obligations from both states to put into the project."

Plus, federal dollars. 

"From 2001 until 2005, every year, we wrote paperwork, and we requested earmarks, and we received earmarks, thankfully," Bulat said. "But in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU, the Transportation Act was signed as an act, that included $67 million for the bridge, and that's when we knew it was going to be able to happen, because we had those initial dollars that we needed."

It wasn't until 2017, following the relocation of mussels, a monument and some businesses, that crews finally broke ground on the new bridge. 

"We're trying to design a bridge that can cross the river effectively, but also, how do we do it and maintain existing traffic?" Rick said. "That was a real challenge. We want to be able to get in there, build the bridge and get out of there as quick as we can. And that's hard to do when you're building a structure on mostly existing alignment."

Bulat said at one point they considered closing the old bridge entirely during construction. 

"That was a significant concern all of the local governments in the area, that would have been very impactful on the businesses in the community," she said. "They were already impacted by the narrower bridge during the time of construction, but to have had the bridge totally closed would not have been good for our business community at all."

Bulat was the Bi-State Regional Commission Transportation Director back when the project first began in the 1990s, before taking over her current position as Executive Director. 

"It's been part of my whole career," she said. "In fact, my children call me the bridge lady, because they were little and they've grown up with me talking about this project since they were little girls."

Ploehn is one of the last original members of the project's advisory board. 

"You don't think when you start your career that something might take 30 years to happen," Ploehn said. "But something this big, and this bountiful, does take that long, and it was very cool to be a part of."

He's seen many people transfer, move on, or retire, including Rick. 

Rick spent 18 years working on the project, but retired the year before construction began.

"I think the project, I-74 project, was at a good stage for me to transition out, we were done, essentially done with the final design," he said. "I don't know if I could have waited five years."

He's since moved out of the Quad City area, but said he's kept track of the progress online. The last time he saw the bridge was when he visited over the summer. 

"We had a lot of conceptual drawings that what it would look like, and it looks so impressive on paper, but it's only more impressive when I see it in person," Rick said. "The scale of that bridge is just incredible."

He's going to be at the ribbon cutting ceremony and will walk across the bridge Wednesday. 

"In my years in the Quad Cities, I've walked across all the river bridges and in doing inspections with Illinois, and looking at bridges and looking at issues," he said. "To be able to walk across a bridge newly built, yeah, it'll be an exciting moment. It puts a closure on that part of that project and my development and my part of that project, to see that it's actually been done."

Neither Ploehn, Rick, or Bulat had any doubts about the project. They always knew it would get done. 

"Someone asked me if I thought anywhere along the way, it wasn't going to happen," Bulat said. "And in all honesty, I never thought that."

Even though the bridge is going to be fully open to traffic soon, there's still some work that has to be done, including some of the aesthetic lighting on the Illinois bound span. 

The three main projects are the demolition of the old bridges and the landscape and elevator contracts. 

The landscaping projects on both sides of the river will add parks and trails and connect with the bridge's pike and pedestrian paths. While the bike path on the bridge is expected to be open by the end of the year, the entire landscaping project could take a couple years. The elevator project in Bettendorf is also more than a year away from completion. 

Contracts for demolition of the old bridge will not go out until this spring.

Rick said he's not sure he's ready to see the old bridge be demolished. 

"I don't know if I'm happy or sad about that," he said. "Those bridges have been part of my entire career in the Quad Cities, so to see those old bridges go will be sad. But they served well. Since 1935."

Access to the old bridge will close the same day the new one opens.  

The new I-74 Bridge will be able to accommodate more than 100,000 vehicles each day and is built to last 100 years. 

Check back here to watch the live ceremony

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