If all goes according to plan, cars thundering over the I-74 bridge will do so above a sprawling park that spans from the Bettendorf bank of the Mississippi River to where the roadway meets the ground.
The $1 billion bridge, which started construction in 2017, is set to be fully open to traffic by the end of the year.
With it, Bettendorf city officials hope to turn the dark underside of the bridge into a green asset to connect Bettendorf’s split downtown.
“The impetus of this is obviously not to just have a desolate underbelly of a bridge, nobody likes those,” said Jeff Reiter, Bettendorf’s economic development director. “So, we want to make it a pedestrian friendly area.”
The plan for the five-acre “urban park” includes walkways underneath the bridge that connect to the Mississippi River Trail system, native plants that can grow with little sunlight, and an elevator that connects the park to the pedestrian walkway on the I-74 bridge.
George Ryan, corridor manager of I-74 improvements in the Quad-Cities, said the urban park project is planned to cost roughly $6.2 million. However, he said they won’t know a breakdown of the cost or the true estimate until bids are sent out for the project — likely spring of 2022. Ryan said he expects construction, then, to begin later that summer.
The bridge will connect Illinois’ riverfront bike trails with Iowa’s, a feature city officials pushed for in the planning stages of the bridge.
“To be able to have a connection between the two riverfront trails here and make the bridge truly multimodal is just amazing,” Ryan said. “I'm not aware of too many instances in the U.S., where there's a pedestrian path on an interstate bridge.”
According to the League of American Bicyclists, there are less than two dozen interstate bridges with bike access.
An elevator to an interstate bridge, as far as Ryan and Bettendorf City Engineer Brent Morlok know, will be unique or at least very rare in the U.S.
But the elevator’s construction could be delayed because certain parts of the elevator can’t meet a Buy America policy that requires a high threshold for American-made materials in transportation projects, Ryan said.
The city of Bettendorf will be responsible for footing the bill for the park and elevator construction, but because it is part of a federal aid transportation project, 99.9% of materials used for the entire project must be American-made.
“The problem is there are some components of elevators that are not American-made,” Ryan said. “For instance, the rails aren't made in America. They're only made in Canada, or some other foreign countries, so it's pretty well impossible for the type of elevator they're looking at to meet Buy America.”
So, project leaders filed a request with the federal government asking to waive the requirement so the elevator could be built while other finishing touches are going on with the bridge project.
That application, Ryan said, is still under review.
If the waiver is denied, Ryan said the elevator would still be built, just after the project is completely finished and books are closed, which could take another year or two.
Morlok said that means they would have to start construction of the elevator after the bridge is completed and post-demolition of the old I-74 bridge.
“We've been told that it wouldn't even be at the end of construction, it would be at project closeout, which could take years,” Morlok said.
But even if the waiver is denied, people will still be able to access the interstate pedestrian path in the meantime before the elevator is built. It would just be a longer route than the elevator’s quick access.
The walkable path in the urban park is planned to stretch from the Bettendorf riverfront to Mississippi Boulevard and Grant Street. Bikers, walkers, etc. can then access the pedestrian path on the interstate bridge via a ramp off of Grant Street.
The park also links up with Leach Park, where a boat launch sits.
Reiter said passersby can also see blue structures in Bettendorf at the end of the bridge that are “identity markers” that signify people are getting off the bridge and into Bettendorf.
Obviously as you're driving 55-60 miles an hour, it's really not catching your eyes too much. But there's consistent identity elements on the bridge as well, just to kind of bring some synergy to the whole thing,” Reiter said.
Connecting downtown Bettendorf
Once the park is complete Bettendorf city officials hope the urban park draws visitors to downtown Bettendorf businesses. Reiter said city staff has had conversations about food truck pads and potential entertainment venues to supplement the park.
That is mostly in the planning stages right now, Reiter said.
Since construction on the bridge started, Bettendorf’s downtown has added several new businesses and buildings, including Bridges Lofts Apartments and a new TBK Bank building. Reiter said more businesses have inquired about adding a location near the bridge in Bettendorf now that it’s open to traffic.
“Whether it's restaurant, retail, white collar office jobs, etc., there's a lot more intrigue now in downtown Bettendorf because it's getting done,” Reiter said.
One conceptual proposal would add another green space and pedestrian paths in what is now about 40 acres of riverfront undeveloped land east of Isle Casino, Reiter said. A connecting overpass from 23rd Street would connect to a parking lot for access to the trails, which connects to the urban park.
“That creates a kind of loop if you will,” Reiter said. “So, if people want to come out and walk a loop, say on their lunch hour or if they live downtown, they've got about a three-mile pedestrian loop they could walk.”
For the city of Bettendorf, walkability is a key goal in attracting visitors and new businesses to its downtown area, and parks are instrumental to their plans.
“Amenities like this urban park, it was kind of our solution or means to an end to just not having an area that's dim and dark,” Reiter said. “That's not really appealing in a downtown environment that you're trying to redevelop…This is very cool thing is going to kind of connect downtown on both sides of the bridge.”