Iowa DOT considers options for rehab or replacement of Lansing Bridge

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The iconic Lansing Bridge is being considered by the Iowa DOT for major rehabilitation or replacement. (Library of Congress photo)



By Ted Pennekamp


The Iowa Department of Transportation is in the middle of an environmental assessment planning study weighing several options for the rehabilitation or replacement of Black Hawk Bridge at Lansing, Iowa.

The environmental assessment planning study is expected to take 2.5 years and there is approximately one year to go, said Krista Billhorn, Iowa DOT transportation planner. There are six options being weighed at the moment for Black Hawk Bridge, popularly known as the Lansing Bridge. Billhorn said the number of options should be pared down a bit in time for an upcoming public meeting. The Iowa DOT is hoping for a meeting date of July 9.

The DOT is looking into how each option affects factors such as land use, wetlands and waterways, floodplains, wildlife, plants, noise and light emissions, and historic, architectural and archaeological resources. “We are working with numerous agencies and organizations, some of which are the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa and Wisconsin DNRs, the Historical Preservation Office, and Native American Tribes,” said Billhorn, who noted the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The community is very sensitive about how they feel about this historic bridge and we are taking aesthetic options into consideration,” said Billhorn. “The bottom line we’re hearing from the public is that they do want a river crossing.”

The bridge is old, and over the decades, its sufficiency rating has slipped to 39.9%. The riveted cantilever through truss bridge has one of the more unusual designs of any Mississippi River bridge. Construction started in 1929 and was completed in 1931.

Billhorn said a major rehabilitation project would close the bridge for approximately one and a half years. She said a major rehabilitation would make the bridge last a rough estimate of another 40 years. The cost of a bridge project would be shared 50-50 with the state of Wisconsin. Rough estimates are $130 million for a major rehabilitation and $80 million for complete replacement.

Bridge designs developed during a 2004 feasibility study include arch and simple span truss bridges (between $60 million and $70 million), a continuous truss bridge (between $70 million and $80 million), and a cable stay bridge (more than $80 million).

If nothing is done, the bridge will have to close by 2028. Approximately $1 million would also be required to maintain the bridge until 2028.

“We’re trying to work through all of the issues with the general public,” said Billhorn.

The bridge, which spans the Mississippi River from Lansing, Iowa to rural Crawford County near De Soto, was named after Sauk leader Chief Black Hawk. It cost $75,000 to build and had a length of 1,623 feet. The original structure included a bridge floor of asphalt plank on treated lumber supported by steel beams. It opened on June 17, 1931.

A $1.3 million rehabilitation project in the late 1950s reinforced the bridge so it could handle heavier truck loads. It was closed from 1945 to 1957 because of ice damage. The Iowa-Wisconsin Bridge Company, which owned and operated the bridge, lacked the funds to repair it. The company went out of business and Iowa and Wisconsin acquired it and repaired it. The bridge was closed briefly for repairs when its 2011 inspection found cracks in the beams under the floor deck. The bridge was closed in May 2017 when flooding washed out part of the road between the Black Hawk Bridge and Highway 35 in Crawford County.

On April 15, 2019, the bridge was closed for a week to replace deck panels and repair other steel structures. The bridge was also closed for about a week beginning on April 25 when scouring on the Wisconsin side due to high water caused 30-foot-long cracks in the road on the dike (approach) to the bridge.

The bridge is critical to commuters and averages about 1,910 vehicles per day. A daily average of 16,500 vehicles use the Mississippi River Bridge, also known as the Cass Street Bridge, between La Crescent, Minn. and La Crosse. Average daily traffic on the US Highway 18 Bridge from Prairie du Chien to Marquette is 9,600 vehicles, said Michael Bie of the Wisconsin DOT.

Black Hawk Bridge is the northernmost Mississippi River bridge in Iowa. It is 25 feet wide, has two, 10-foot lanes and no shoulders.

The bridge spans about 650 feet over the main navigation channel, which is on the Iowa side. This is shy of the 770 feet now required by the U.S. Coast Guard. The bridge is difficult to navigate and there have been several collisions by tow boats over the years.

If the bridge were to be replaced, it would have a main span of at least the required 770 feet. A new bridge would be wider and would have two 12-foot travel lanes and 8-foot shoulders.

Along with having historical and architectural significance, the bridge is a popular culture icon as well. The 1999 critically acclaimed movie “The Straight Story,” depicted the 240-mile journey by Alvin Straight in 1994 on a riding lawn mower to see his dying brother. The elderly Straight, who had eyesight and leg problems, traveled from his home in Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wis. at a rate of about 5 mph. The movie chronologically shows Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth, along the actual route, including traversing the Black Hawk Bridge.

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