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Historic bridge to be realigned, replaced in Henry

A photo of the river bridge leaving Henry by the southeast.
A photo of the river bridge leaving Henry by the southeast.

A massive Illinois Department of Transportation project will bring a brand new bridge to the Central Illinois town of Henry.

The IL-18 River Bridge Project is set to demolish, realign and replace the 90-year-old bridge that leaves the town of Henry to southeast. IDOT Bureau Chief of Program Development Karen Dvorsky says the project is budgeted for $108 million, funded through the Rebuild Illinois capital program in 2019.

Dvorsky says the bridge project has been undergoing a “Phase 1 study” since 2021.

However, the project may end up coming in under budget. Dvorsky says a second part of the project to raise roadways on the east side of the bridge to fix long standing issues with flooding has been moved to a separate study and potential future project.

“We’ve done some major rehabilitation to keep [the bridge] in a serviceable condition,” she said. “But there gets a point in time where, you know, it becomes more cost effective to replace the bridge than to keep trying to repair it.”

In addition to the general wear and tear of almost a century of use, Dvorsky says the bridge’s lanes are too narrow and no longer meet IDOT’s standards for roadways. In total, IDOT presentations show the bridge is 24 feet wide, while updated standards require six foot shoulders with 12 foot driving lanes.

“There’s no accommodations for bicycles, it’s kind of inadequate for large farm equipment,” said Dvorsky. “And so those things were taken into consideration as well, when we talked about the need to replace the bridge.”

Dvorsky says community members expressed a need for the old bridge to remain open during construction of the new bridge, which also factored into IDOT’s decision to move ahead with a new structure, shifted slightly upriver.

Henry Mayor Jeff Bergfeld says he’s supportive of the bridge replacement and understands why it’s needed, but he does have reservations about the proposed designs for the replacement.

“It’s ironic that they understand this, the historical and cultural significance of the bridge that we currently have now that was built in 1935,” he said. “But, in terms of design, we’re getting the typical interstate concrete bridge. So you could go over the new proposed bridge in Henry and think that you were going over a set of railroad tracks on Interstate 39.”

An IDOT report from a public meeting in late February shows other residents share some of Bergfelds’ concerns.

Dvorsky says IDOT did take the historical significance of the structure into account during the Phase 1 study. They are currently waiting on an official determination from the State Historic Preservation Officer, which she expects to name it a historic bridge.

“But there are federal processes which allow us to remove the bridge when there’s no feasible way to maintain that structure,” Dvorsky said.

There is a required time period where IDOT had to offer up the bridge for purchase by anyone or an organization that would want to maintain it, or dismantle and move it somewhere for display. Dvorsky says, likely due to the size of the bridge, they received no offers.

“One of the key elements that I hope that we can at least move towards restoring is the portal that the bridge is,” said Bergfeld. “As you come from Route 18, across the river into the city, the tree line moves away, and you kind of, the view opens up over the top of the river. And that’s kind of the ‘ah-ha!’ coming into the city of Henry. I think you’d have to drive it to understand that.”

The change will come slowly, Dvorsky says the earliest construction could start is 2027, with construction completed in approximately late 2029.

The associated realignment with the replacement of the bridge is expected to impact 16 parcels of land. Five of those are residential displacements, with four single family properties and one multi-family property. Two parcels would be commercial displacements.

Dvorsky says IDOT is still working towards beginning the land acquisition process.

“We can't start land acquisition until our phase one study is complete,” she said. “We're expecting phase one to be complete sometime mid 2024. And then at that time, what we'll do is we will develop plans and legal descriptions for each parcel that we need to acquire property from.”

For IDOT, land acquisition includes an appraisal, a reappraisal, and then negotiations with landowners to determine if they’ll need to buy parcels of land outright or find ways to operate with just a strip of land.

“We’ll work with them the best we can to minimize or mitigate those impacts,” Dvorsky said.

The new bridge also comes at a time of greater transformation for the town of Henry. The Port of Henry development project is ongoing, as the Central Illinois town works to utilize its place on the Illinois River.

Dvorsky says the potential industrial traffic attracted by a new port wasn’t specifically factored into the design of the new bridge. But, she says all IDOT projects are rated for at least 20 years of traffic.

You can find more general information about the project on IDOT’s website here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.