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Group wants to turn old interstate bridge into wildlife crossing, pedestrian walkway

A group in Illinois is proposing a new purpose for an old bridge
Posted at 2:33 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-16 15:33:56-04

A bridge that spans across the Mississippi River from Iowa to Illinois is getting old. Instead of tearing it down, Chad Pregracke has another idea.

“It’s one thing to talk about something, it’s another to be doing it and actively doing it with a bigger purpose in mind. And that’s kind of what we’ve been working towards,” Pregracke said as he drove across the I-80 bridge.

It’s just another bridge for many drivers, but for Pregracke, it symbolizes much more.

“I grew up right by the bridge,” he said. “And I spent a lot of time as a kid fishing and swimming around the bridge.”

Pregracke and the team behind the Bison Bridge Foundation want to turn the bridge into just that, a bridge for bison, pedestrians, and cyclists.

“I came up with the idea of Bison Bridge but it didn't happen overnight. It actually happened over the last 20 years,” he said.

“When you hear about it at first, you think it's a pretty wild project. And some would say it’s crazy and that's fine. But that’s what it needs to be,” he explained.

Pregracke had plans drawn up to show the public exactly what a final product could look like.

“It’s not just about bison. It’s also equally, if not more, about the Mississippi River and celebrating that,” he said.

He put the project in motion two years ago, but it still has quite a ways to go.

“Repurposing of infrastructure is something new, it’s unique. It’s challenging and it’s different from what you typically see of an infrastructure project,” said Kevin Marchek, a former Illinois Department of Transportation engineer.

He recently retired after almost four decades there.

“The bridge has been around for approximately 55 years. It was part of the interstate system during the Eisenhower days,” Marchek said.

According to Marchek, the bridge is jointly owned by both states, Iowa and Illinois, and the federal government. The departments are looking at creating a new bridge in its place. Where that bridge will be exactly is still unknown.

“It’s undersized for the amount of traffic that's on it, so that combined with the age,” he said.

“You're looking at about 42,000 cars traveling across Interstate 80 a day,” Pregracke said.

But this aging bridge still has some life.

“That’s really the main thing here is that we’re reusing and repurposing a structure and hopefully saving the department of transportation’s money,” Marchek said.

“I’m not building a bridge, I'm just trying to keep it and doing something positive with something that we’re gonna pay about $20 million to blow up,” Pregracke explained.

The idea of wildlife crossings has become more and more common.

“The more developed our natural habitats become, which is just the natural process of humans living in landscapes, the more fragmented they become,” said Paul Drummond, a licensed landscape architect and member of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Drummond said bridges can help stitch together these fragmented areas for animals.

“Wildlife crossings benefit everybody. They benefit people, but they also benefit the wildlife,” he said.

Pregracke’s idea has started to gain momentum, with over 30,000 signatures on a petition, bison signs on the side of local streets, and even a statue that makes appearances at local events.

The only major concern he addresses is about money.

“Most people are worried about their taxpayers' money,” Pregracke said. “We’re looking to do this privately.”

The final product is still years out and there are many decisions that have to be made along the way, as government agencies have to decide where the new bridge will go, and what will become of this one.

“We totally respect the process and try to work with the process,” Pregracke said.

“You're looking at about seven years down the line before we’d see a new bridge in place,” Marchek said.