LANSING — When the Black Hawk Bridge connecting Lansing to De Soto, Wis., opened in 1931, some thought the new cantilever through-truss bridge over the Mississippi River would make La Crosse’s old wagon bridge obsolete.
“La Crosse with its 39,868 people will have to start a definite and enticing campaign to induce tourist traffic to pass through and stop in the city,” city leaders said, according to the Feb. 8, 1931, edition of the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press.
Then La Crosse replaced its old wagon bridge with a new crossing on Cass Street in 1939, after a fatal car crash demolished part of the old structure.
Today, it’s the existing Black Hawk Bridge, also known as the Lansing bridge, that’s about to become obsolete.
The Iowa Department of Transportation is taking the lead on weighing four bridge replacement options against major repairs that would extend the useful life of the Black Hawk Bridge by 20 to 30 years maximum. Without intervention, the bridge will have to close by 2028.
Daily traffic on the Black Hawk Bridge — one of three Mississippi River crossings within the almost 70 miles from Prairie Du Chien to La Crosse and a critical route for local commuters — averages about 1,910 vehicles, almost 400 fewer than projected in the original 1931 prospectus used to raise funds for the bridge. By comparison, 16,500 vehicles use the Cass Street bridge per day, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
While the Black Hawk Bridge might be best known for its 7.18 percent incline, which gives motorists a rollercoaster-like feel, it’s also a historic bridge eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
As an older bridge, the Lansing bridge wasn’t built to accommodate today’s traffic. At 25 feet wide, it has two 10-foot lanes and no shoulders. Traffic is closed to one lane when extra-wide trucks go through or the bridge requires repairs, and the bridge is off limits to cyclists and pedestrians.
The Lansing bridge is also one of the trickier Mississippi River crossings to navigate from below. The bridge stretches about 650 feet over the main navigation channel where the river bends, short of the 770-feet span between piers now required by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has recorded six tow collisions with the bridge between 1987 and 1991, and the River Industry Action committee ranked the Black Hawk Bridge the 12th most difficult upper Mississippi River bridge to navigate in a 1991 survey, according to the 2004 DOT bridge replacement feasibility study.
The new bridge would have a main span of at least 770 feet and be built wider to accommodate two 12-foot travel lanes and 8-foot shoulders on either side, according to the DOT’s 2018 bridge project display.
Three of the four new bridge locations being considered by the DOT are within blocks from the current Ballou Street approach from the Iowa side, and would reuse the Big Slough Bridge over the back channels on the Wisconsin side. A fourth option that connects from downtown John Street, closer to more businesses and homes, would require a new slough bridge, but disturb fewer historic resources and archaeological sites.
Possible 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.)
Because of the bridge’s historic value, the Iowa DOT is also considering a major rehabilitation at a cost of almost $30 million. This option, which would close the bridge to traffic for about a year and a half, would include replacing the stringers, floor beams, and deck, as well as stabilizing pier 3. The work would need to take place by 2024, and would extend the bridge’s remaining service life to 2048 at most. Because a new bridge will still need to be built, the DOT estimated the total cost to range between $107.7 million and $136.8 million.
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If the bridge were left as is until 2028, it would cost $125,000 each year to inspect, as opposed to $75,000 for a new bridge. Approximately $1 million would also be required to maintain the bridge until 2028, at which point the bridge would be closed.
Either way, the current bridge could not be left as a bike or pedestrian walkway, the DOT said in its project display. “Because of the anticipated cost, neither the Iowa or Wisconsin DOTs nor the city of Lansing would be able to maintain the condition of the bridge for continued use, even by only pedestrians or bicyclists.”
The DOT is conducting an environmental assessment to look at how each option affects factors including land use, wetlands and waterways, floodplains, wildlife, plants, noise and light emissions, and historic, architectural and archaeological resources.
The findings will help the DOT narrow its options, said Krista Billhorn, Iowa DOT transportation planner. The environmental assessment will be shared in a public meeting held in June or July, Billhorn said, at which point the project will be open again to public comments.
“The community is very attached to this bridge, it’s very iconic,” Billhorn said.
Plans for a Lansing bridge date back to the turn of the 20th century at least, but it wasn’t until 1916 that Congress granted the Interstate Bridge Company a charter to build one. Construction didn’t take place until 1929 because of World War I. By then, the original charter had expired and a new contract was granted to the Iowa-Wisconsin Bridge Company.
The bridge, named for Sauk leader Chief Black Hawk to commemorate the centennial of the nearby Bad Axe Massacre, was designed by chief engineer Melvin B. Stone of Minneapolis. It cost $75,000 to build, spanned 1,623 feet, and the original bridge floor was asphalt plank on treated timber supported by steel beams.
“When complete, the bridge will sustain a maximum load of 30 tons in transit,” the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press reported ahead of the bridge’s June 17, 1931, opening.
The bridge was reinforced in the 1950s during a $1.3 million rehabilitation project to handle heavier truck loads, after it closed in 1945 due to ice dam damage.
Further strengthening of the bridge would be “very challenging from a technical perspective,” according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. “This bridge has a finite service life because of fatigue caused by the flexing of steel members under load.”
The bridge was closed for repairs after its 2011 inspection found cracks in the beams under the floor deck.