The historic Cascade Bridge, constructed in 1896, is a steel truss bridge which connects South Main Street to the entrance of Burlington’s beautiful signature parks — Crapo and Dankwardt parks, which are community treasures.
Unique in design, the inverted Baltimore truss bridge has the steel work below the deck. This allows for an unobstructed, breathtaking view of the mighty Mississippi and the landscape beyond, not to mention that unsettling feeling of seeing the deep ravine far, far below the decking beneath your feet, should you decide to cross on foot or bicycle.
This local landmark was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Ten years later, in 2008, it was closed to vehicle traffic, due to concerns about the bridge’s structural integrity.
It’s been over 10 years since anyone has had the opportunity to enjoy the distinctive hum your car tires would make while crossing the bridge, over 10 years since anyone has had a chance to try to hold their breath while they crossed the “spooky bridge.” It’s been over 10 years — no repairs have been made — and now we are probably closing it to foot and bicycle traffic.
I understand the reasoning: it’s just not safe. Because of the style of the bridge, only one section has to fail and the whole bridge will collapse. Out of the four sections of the bridge, three of the sections might be rated at 10 tons, but the the fourth section might be rated at 4 tons. If one pin, or one piece in that section fails, the whole bridge falls into the ravine.
A large group of people leaving the band shell after a concert at Crapo Park or families leaving a Little League baseball game at Dankwardt Park could potentially overload the bridge if they were walking to their vehicles they parked on the north side of the bridge. It’s not an entirely unrealistic scenario.
People might be angry about the inconvenience, but I think we would all be devastated by a terrible tragedy — especially if we knew there is a real risk involved and we defied our common sense. Why be stubborn about it? Close the bridge if we need to.
But that brings about the real question: what are we going to do about the bridge? We can repair or rebuild, or the the other alternative — which is nothing — but, it seems like that’s what we have been doing already for the last 10 years.
It’s a shame previous city councils didn’t act on this earlier, but in their defense, I think the most common mistake government makes is spending money we don’t have.
In June of 2018 we were offered a grant of $1.5 million to rebuild the bridge, but we declined the grant because we would have had to start work by October of 2021 and we didn’t have the money to finish the project. I believe the grant was also offered in 2014, but we didn’t have the money then, either.
We shouldn’t spend money we don’t have, nor should we take grant money just to take it. Because the grant is based on need, the grant should come back around, in theory. There’s no reason to think we won’t get the grant when we actually have a plan to begin the project — unless we demolish the bridge.
If we demolished the bridge, instead of closing it, we would lose the opportunity to receive those grant funds — because there would be no bridge to replace. It’s another example of governmental inefficiency: we would have to tear it down to build a new one, but we can’t tear the old one down and secure a grant for a nonexistent bridge.
The community has asked why the bridge wasn’t included with the TIGER grant. The city attempted to include it in our first application for the grant, but the reply was to limit the scope of the request to downtown areas on Main and Jefferson, including the riverfront. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful, but it’s another example of help, but not help when and where we need it most.
I also understand we could have moved the timeline of the project up, but that would have meant five years of no road work because of the hefty price tag. Besides, other needs had priority — the Mount Pleasant Street Bridge, for example. Everything costs money.
When we prioritize the list of what roadwork needs to be done, I can understand why the bridge was pushed back, but I still think it could have been done before — had we not been broke.
We were in dire financial straits not so many years ago. Fortunately, we found a great city manager when we hired Jim Ferneau. He’s been successful at servicing our debts and we’re paying our bills. Typically, I think Ferneau is financially conservative and would not purposely spend money we don’t have.
That’s why we have waited — I don’t think the condition of the bridge, nor the necessity of this project has gone unnoticed by the council or any of the city managers. I believe it is already forecast to be on the five-year plan and should be shovel-ready by 2024.
We’re going to have to exercise a little patience and some planning to make this happen. Financially, you have to know where you’re at and where you’re going before you ever build a bridge.
Anyone have $10 million and want a bridge named after them?
Robert Critser, who lives in Burlington and is an assistant manager at the West Burlington Walmart Supercenter, writes a freelance column for The Hawk Eye.