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As IDOT searches for new I-80 bridge location, nearby towns consider the impacts

The state has begun the first phase of environmental studies near the current span. It's a process both Rapids City, IL, and LeClaire, IA, are closely watching.

RAPIDS CITY, Ill. — It's the next big bridge project to hit the Quad Cities: building a new I-80 span over the Mississippi River.  

Now, officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) are looking for the perfect home for a new bridge. The big question: should it stay in the location of the current one, or move somewhere else along the river? 

The answer is a simple. It's too early to know for sure. 

In December 2021, IDOT officially got the green light to begin the first phase of engineering studies on this topic.

"There's route surveys and environmental surveys and those kinds of on-site occurrences, but when we say study, it's more of a broad term that refers to evaluation of that data that's collected," said Becky Marruffo, IDOT's district two engineer of program development. 

She says right now, the state is looking at what wildlife would be impacted by construction at different locations, how many lanes are needed, what do the interchanges need to look like and more. 

"What are the existing shortcomings that we need to address? Such as safety concerns, mobility concerns, potential delays," questioned Marruffo. "Those are all things that we consider as we determine what the new facility is going to look like." 

Marruffo also added that the state is closely looking at how residents of surrounding towns would be affected by a new bridge site. 

"Are there homes that are going to be impacted if we were to take the bridge in a different location? Or, you know, other things? Like how does changing an interchange affect a local town," she said. 

As it stands, the present-day I-80 bridge is aging, narrow and too small for current traffic demands. The 55-year-old structure sees over 40,000 crossings a day. 

Officials want to build a bridge that can withstand the growing travel demands, and note that this process might be much quicker than the I-74 bridge construction in the neighboring Quad Cities. Unlike that project, the I-80 plan already has money set aside, ready to be spent on the new infrastructure.

However, IDOT is legally required to have a "no build" alternative to their plan while the studies are being conducted. This means the state has to prepare for a world in which no new bridge is built and the existing structure is renovated instead. 

If a new bridge is built, the final decision on its location won't be made public for months, or possibly years. But for the two towns on either side of the bridge, the impact of that choice will be felt for decades. 

"It certainly isn't far off our minds," said Harold Mire Jr., Village President of Rapids City. "The current bridge's location is optimal for us. We like where it's at." 

A tiny town of 1,000 people, Rapids City's boundaries are right next to the Illinois side of the bridge, and extend all the way up to the next town over of Port Byron. Along that stretch, the riverfront is filled with houses and lots. It's something Mire is worried could be jeopardized if the bridge is shifted upstream.  

"If it comes upstream but doesn't go four to five miles upstream, not only will the river homes be impacted, but also major subdivisions that are currently under development," Mire said. "My concern is to see advancement in the community without jeopardizing the quaintness and serenity that our citizens enjoy in this community." 

Across the water, LeClaire, Iowa, is also keeping a close eye on the project. 

"There's no question that the bridge is needed," said mayor Dennis Gerard. "But for us, the main thing is the impact it would have on residents. Obviously, there are a few residents that would be potentially impacted if it moved." 

Gerard says he doesn't have a preference on the location of the new bridge... yet. 

Instead, he warns that it's still too early in the process to really know, and he's excited to eventually see the state's findings. 

"It will be a good change, however it shakes out," Gerard said. "But sorting through how the impact of the businesses are during the course of construction is also really critical." 

Both leaders did note that if the state does decide to build the new span somewhere else along the river, they would support the 'Bison Bridge' project, which is an effort to turn the existing I-80 bridge into the world's largest wildlife crossing, with a national park on either side. 

According to IDOT, that initiative isn't an existing resource, so it is not impacting the state's studies or findings. 

"But we certainly have heard from those folks and know what they have some really interesting concepts that they're very passionate about," Marruffo said. 

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