It started with a transportation investment study 21 years ago, spanning five department directors and four chief engineers, but the Interstate 74 bridge reconstruction project officially is under way.

With Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner in attendance, state and local officials held an official groundbreaking ceremony for the new I-74 bridge Monday afternoon at Leach Park in Bettendorf.

"This afternoon, we celebrate a major milestone for Iowans and our neighbors to the east in Illinois," Reynolds said. "First, this bridge will be the largest contract ever undertaken in the Iowa Department of Transportation. Second, after more than a decade of planning and thousands of interested and passionate citizens, commuters, business owners and decision makers working towards a common vision, this bridge has finally become a reality."

The project, which was estimated to cost $400 million to $450 million, already has awarded contracts to Black River Falls, Wisconsin-based Lunda Construction for $322 million for the bridge's spans. A $30.1 million contract was awarded to Freeport, Illinois-based Civil Contractors to build a viaduct and off-ramp over downtown Bettendorf.

Construction of the bridge is likely to run into 2020 before the existing structure is imploded in 2021.

Overall, the I-74 corridor is projected to cost nearly $1.2 billion, a figure that is adjusted for inflation over the project's lifespan. The entire corridor extends from 53rd Street in Davenport into Bettendorf and across the Mississippi River to Avenue of the Cities in Moline.

The project replaces the two existing spans. Construction of the current northbound bridge, originally known as the Memorial Bridge, began in 1934 for around $1.5 million. Construction of the southbound bridge began in 1958 before opening for traffic in 1960 and was built for almost $8 million.

Reynolds called the project, which consists of two bridges about 3,400 feet in length and two 795-foot basket handle arches over the Mississippi River, a "grand entrance."

By combining data and technology, Reynolds also said the new bridge will incorporate Intelligent Transportation Systems to improve traffic flows through the corridors as well as Bridge Health Monitoring System to assure the bridge is always functioning.

"The new I-74 bridge is a great example of moving beyond the status quo, and we love moving beyond the status quo," Reynolds said.

Like Reynolds, Rauner called the bridge a "great victory" and highlighted the bridge construction's anticipated impact on safety while also serving the growing needs of Quad-City area, which has been projected to increase both in commuters and economic activity.

"We are the heart of transportation in America, and we need to do everything we can to enhance our infrastructure in transportation," Rauner said. "This is going to be easier for both sides to recruit more companies to the Quad-Cities. Companies want to know they have good quality transportation options, their employees are going to be safe and have a good quality of commute back and forth and they can move their goods and services back and forth on an effective basis."

While Reynolds and Rauner's appearance marked a historic moment, not only for the bridge, but appearing in the Quad-Cities at the same time, it was not without some detractors.

Outside Leach Park, protesters chanted for hours at Rauner about the current Illinois budget impasse.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy also issued a statement against Rauner and the need to pass a budget so that Illinois can pay for its share of the bridge.

"Instead of focusing on our budget impasse, he has fled Springfield to cut a ribbon for a bridge we can't pay for without a budget," Kennedy said. "This bridge is a productive capital project that creates jobs and strengthens infrastructure in the region but without a budget, it will become a bridge to nowhere. Inevitably, Iowa will need to collect Illinois' share of the I-74 bridge project."

But for the majority in attendance, the theme echoed throughout was the "big deal" the bridge represented along with the persistence of local and state leaders to push it through after so many years.

"This accomplishment started at the local level with local leaders from both sides of the river working together, becoming one voice and making this a reality," Bettendorf Mayor Pro Tem Debe Lamar said.

For Iowa Department of Transportation director Mark Lowe, the I-74 bridge holds a special place in his heart because it was his introduction to Iowa after moving from Missouri.

"We came in about 9 o'clock across this bridge, and I was plastered to my window, looking out the window, looking at the lights shining on the water and realizing something amazing was happening in my life," Lowe said. "I didn't know how big it was. I didn't realize it was going to introduce me to a 40-year life in Iowa and a place where I raised my family and a place that I love so much."

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