Boom town!

Savanna-Sabula bridge upgrades infrastructure while producing jobs

By Ted Cox

SAVANNA — In order to build bridges, it only makes sense that you have to tear down a few old ones now and then to make way for the new ones.

That’s exactly what happened in Savanna on March 9, only in a way that drew curious Illinoisans from as far away as Dixon, Colona, and even Crystal Lake on a Friday morning. The old U.S. Route 52-Illinois 64 bridge across the Mississippi River between Savanna on the Illinois side and Sabula, Iowa, was blown up and dropped into the river, where it would be easier to break down by using barges with cranes.

“I think we could have sold tickets for this,” said Kevin Stier, who captains the Riverboat Twilight on the Mississippi.

The blast, which created a line of dark black puffs of smoke along the frame of the old bridge from the detonation charges just ahead of a huge, concussive “BOOM!” as the bridge dropped into the river, didn’t disappoint.

“it was loud,” said Savanna Mayor Chris Lain.

Calling it “an awesome experience,” he added, “It was just so cool to see so many people from different places coming to Savanna as well to see that. You know, it’s a pretty historic moment.”

How often do you get to see a bridge blown up and dropped into the water below? Not often enough as it turns out.

 Deteriorating infrastructure is a growing problem across the Rust Belt of the Midwest, as anyone who recalls the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis a decade ago can attest.

According to a paper issued in February by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a partner of One Illinois in providing rigorous data on statewide issues, state Department of Transportation roadways have deteriorated over the last two decades due to lack of repairs and the failure to pass a major capital-spending bill. ILEPI charges that 20 percent of IDOT roads are rated in “poor” condition, up from 8 percent in 2001, and 31 percent of all bridges across the state, almost a third, are more than 50 years old, with 8 percent of IDOT bridges considered “backlogged,” meaning overdue for replacement.

The Savanna-Sabula bridge project, then, is a shining example of what needs to be done. The beautiful new double-arch span went up alongside the old bridge, the product of an $80.6 million project led by IDOT along with its Iowa counterpart. The entire process is due to be completed on schedule in May.

“If you’ve ever had a chance to go over that old bridge, it was a little scary,” Lain said. “It definitely wasn’t built for the cars we’ve got today or semi-truck traffic. It was built for what they had back in 1920, and things have changed. If you were passing a truck when you were headed over to Iowa, it was a little frightening.”

“I’ve ridden a motorcycle across it,” Stier said. Because of the open grating on the roadway, “the motorcycle would slide sideways,” he added. “I’ve pulled semi-trailers across it, and they had just six inches between your mirrors” and walls to the side.

The old bridge needed to go, all agreed, but there was something nostalgic about the Erector Set-style design of it. It was built in 1932 by the Minneapolis Bridge Company, a group that was largely self-taught in bridge construction. The crew was responsible for many of the bridges built from the 1880s through the 1940s in a stretch from Minneapolis to the East Coast, with many still in use today.

“It was just so beautiful and architecturally interesting,” Lain said. “It was part of Savanna, and to see it go — I’m not going to lie — there was a little tear in my eye.”

According to Lain, however, bits of the old ironwork will be salvaged and converted into art to be displayed in Savanna’s riverfront Marquette Park, which will be expanded with the adoption of some landfill used in the bridge construction.

And the new bridge offers its own aesthetic pleasures, as well as separate bike and pedestrian lanes across its wide span.

“The new bridge is gorgeous,” Lain said. “It’s going to be great for us, you know, as far as tourism and economic development and everything. It’s going to be fantastic.”

Dennis Becht, a storm chaser in the Quad Cities for SVLMedia, came up for the blast and said he’s already looking ahead to demolition of the even more massive Interstate 74 bridge across the Mississippi, set for 2021 at the end of an ongoing federal bridge-replacement project.

“I’m hoping they do the 74 that way too,” he said.