Saving history while speeding up traffic
Motorists on 135th Street waiting to cross the Sanitary Canal via Romeoville, Ill.’s historic swing bridge got a rude shock on the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1990. That was the day the bridge opened to let water traffic through and never closed. (A swing bridge operates like a drawbridge, but instead of opening vertically, it swings to the side to let traffic through.)
Built in 1898 by the forerunner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the bridge had serious structural deficiencies because of its age. Consequently, when an Illinois Supreme Court decision freed the district from further maintenance of the bridge, it was closed to vehicular traffic suddenly and unexpectedly.
The closing of the swing bridge caused problems because 135th Street, one of the main east-west routes in northeastern Will County, is the only east-west street within Romeoville’s corporate boundaries. It crosses the DesPlaines River, the Sanitary Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and it connects all areas of the village between them. The two available detours involved trips of 7 and 10 miles one-way. The long detours and traffic jams forced the village to deploy temporary police and fire services on the east side of the canal.
To determine whether the bridge could be reopened, the village hired South Holland, Ill.-based Robinson Engineering, which studied every alternative from doing nothing to building a new bridge.
The cost that would be imposed on motorists using one of the two detours was estimated at $17.3 million a year; consequently, doing nothing was considered unsound. Rehabilitation would have cost $1 million without addressing the major problems the bridge presented (e.g., weight restrictions and a low vertical clearance that forced the city to open the bridge about eight times a day to let barges and boats through). Construction costs for a new bridge were estimated at $3 million.
Ultimately, the federal and state governments approved a fourth alternative that involved widening and reconstructing 135th Street and constructing a high-level bridge that would run over the Sanitary Canal, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad tracks, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The existing bridges over the DesPlaines River also would be widened and re-decked, and bikepaths would be built.
The swing bridge was rehabilitated and relocated to the village’s Centennial Trail, a biking and hiking facility. Wetlands have been created around the bridge to provide a natural setting and to mitigate wetlands affected by the 135th Street project. The new location of the bridge, and the manner in which it was to be moved, was decided by six governmental agencies, including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.
The two-span, 302-foot-long steel truss bridge, which weighs more than 130 tons, was moved in its entirety. “In its present location, the bridge will be enjoyed by generations to come,” says Romeoville Mayor Fred Dewald.
The project earned awards from the American Public Works Association, Kansas City, Mo., for Local Project of the Year and Historic Preservation Project of the Year.