“Let’s Talk Bridges”: Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library is hosting monthly series focused on learning about and celebrating the new bridge project

First of monthly “Let’s Talk Bridges” discussions held in Lansing ... Travis Konda, project manager, HNTB Corporation, speaks to about two dozen attendees at the first monthly “Let’s Talk Bridges!” event, held Thursday, November 9, at Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library. The monthly talks will be held the second Thursday of each month from 5-6 p.m. at the library. People of all ages are invited to attend the monthly talks, which will include hands-on learning activities, and question-and-answer sessions with engineers on the new bridge project at Lansing. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Building more than just bridges ... The four men pictured above are instrumental members of the personnel involved in the bridge replacement project over the Mississippi River at Lansing, and all four were in attendance to speak with community members at the first “Let’s Talk Bridges” discussion held Thursday, November 9, with others scheduled each month at the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library to help keep people informed about the project. Left to right: Paul Lindsey, senior field inspector; Clayton Burke, project manager, Iowa DOT; Anden Lovig, construction engineer; and Travis Konda, project manager, HNTB Corporation. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

A lot of people have been talking - and wondering - about the new bridge being built across the Mississippi River at Lansing.

Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library and Executive Director Derva Burke, along with Clayton Burke (no relation), project manager with the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) and the overseeing engineer on the new bridge project, are presenting an opportunity for everyone to have their questions answered. “Let’s Talk Bridges!” - a monthly series focused on learning about and celebrating the new bridge project at Lansing - was held for the first time Thursday, November 9, from 5 to 6 p.m., at Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library.

Attendees learned about things like how a bridge project is planned, and how this particular project attracted some of the most renowned experts in their fields; how construction will affect Lansing and the surrounding area; and how Iowa is on the leading edge of many transportation technologies, specifically involving bridge construction. Future talks, a project engineer told attendees, will involve bringing in “rocks and sand that haven’t seen the light of day in thousands of years”; conversations about how bridges are built and how workers are kept safe (“How do we actually pick up something that weighs 200 tons and put it into place?); and hands-on learning activities for people of all ages.

Everyone is invited to attend the talks, which will be held at the library the second Thursday of every month, from 5 to 6 p.m.

Clayton Burke, who lived for a while in Lansing, has said he thinks of his onsite presence and work on the project as being, in part, an opportunity to re-connect with the Lansing community. “The community has been incredible in its engagement and excitement about the project,” he said. He began the talk Thursday by introducing a few project personnel who were joining him that evening. All four men will be in Lansing for much (or all) of the project, returning to their various homes on weekends.

“They’re going to be around; they’re a part of our community, now,” Derva Burke told attendees. “If you see them, say ‘hi.’”

Paul Lindsey is senior field inspector on the project. This is the fifth Mississippi River bridge project he has worked on. Originally from Mississippi, Lindsey said, “I’ve worked my way up the Mississippi River.” Anden Lovig is a construction engineer on the project. He handled the computer work for the team’s presentation Thursday evening.

Travis Konda, a structural engineer, is project manager with the HNTB Corporation - an employee-owned U.S.-based design firm widely recognized as one of the best in the country. He’ll be in Lansing for the duration of the bridge project, ensuring that “the State is getting the work that they ask for,” he said, adding that he spends “pretty much all the time in the trailer - figuring out which questions need to be answered.” Konda has worked on 10 Mississippi River bridges; this is the fourth that he has helped to construct. “It’s really exciting to be a part of this,” Konda said.

Before talking about details of the new bridge project, Clayton Burke briefly described how we all arrived at this historical moment - on the cusp of building a new bridge across the Mississippi River at Lansing.

Since the completion of the Black Hawk Bridge in 1931, Burke said, the DOT has been keeping track of the bridge, “checking its pulse” and, when necessary, updating its structure rating - a number based on the materials, physical condition of the deck (riding surface), the superstructure (supports immediately beneath the driving surface) and the substructures (foundation and supporting posts and piers). By doing this, Burke said, “engineers can forecast when bridge repairs will be needed” - and how long a bridge can be expected to last.

“Many modern bridges have a design-life of 100 years,” Burke said. Because it’s “highly unlikely” the Black Hawk Bridge had a 100-year forecast lifespan, he added, “it’s pretty impressive that the bridge has maintained a high enough structure rating to stay in service” as long as it has. “Engineers have regular meetings and plan when bridges need to be replaced,” he said. “Some conversations regarding the Black Hawk Bridge started about 20 years ago.”

Indeed, according to a timeline on the website for the project, a feasibility study was begun in December of 2004 to determine next steps for the bridge; in 2017, the first public meeting was held to discuss improvements; and in 2019, the bridge was evaluated for possible rehabilitation (iowadot.gov/lansingbridge).

“Engineers found that repair would only give it about 26 more years of life,” Burke said. They determined that, by replacing the bridge and spending only a little more money, it would be good for 100 years. In June of 2021, this “preferred option” of replacing the bridge was discussed at a public meeting. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held November 2, and the new bridge is scheduled to open at the end of 2026.

Burke said “an incredibly complicated process” had to be undertaken before the design work was even started on the new bridge. Part of that process involved working with environmental groups that did studies to ensure minimal environmental impact by the project. It was determined, for example, that “Lansing is a very rich source of cultural resources, like artifacts,” he said. Additionally, the area was found to be inhabited by the only mussel listed under the Endangered Species Act - the Higgins Eye Pearly Mussel. By law, these mussels had to be relocated. Divers and aquatic biologists with EcoAnalysts, Inc. - a provider of ecological field sampling, laboratory, and consulting services in terrestrial, freshwater, estuarine and marine environments (www.ecoanalysts.com) - worked for several months to relocate the mussels.

An additional element of the pre-design process involved setting into place a mitigation agreement between the DOT and the City of Lansing, regarding the historic Black Hawk Bridge. That agreement contained four stipulations: 1) to build a similarly designed steel through-truss bridge; 2) to produce a mini-documentary focusing on the bridge’s history in the greater Lansing community; 3) to conduct supplemental historical research on the bridge; and 4) to put together a retention plan/element salvage for the following bridge components: all four center span connection pins - two to Iowa, two to Wisconsin, various locations; end of a select eye bar, approximately 24” - Iowa DOT Bridge Bureau; McClintic-Marshall 1931 date plaque - Iowa DOT Bridge Bureau; and west portal - City of Lansing.

The mini documentary, which is scheduled to come out next year, will focus on three areas: the history of the bridge; interviews with stakeholders/people who know about the bridge; and the project process. The team will be asking for interviewees for the mini documentary soon, Burke said. Historian Ray Werner of Tallgrass Archaeology LLC conducted supplemental historical research on the Black Hawk Bridge.

He focused on the historical context from the late 1920s through the 1950s when the bridge was opened and became ensnared in extensive fraud trials. He presented his research to the community at Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library Thursday, January 12. A copy of Werner’s research presentation is available at the library.

In response to a question about the new bridge’s size, Burke described some of the general dimensions of the new bridge as compared to the existing Black Hawk Bridge. Among the dimensions he compared were the following: Road width: 40’ (new bridge), 21’ (existing bridge); channel width: 750’ (new bridge), 650’ (existing bridge); total length: 1724’ (new bridge), 1702’ (existing bridge); driving lane widths: 12’ (new bridge), 10’ (existing bridge); and shoulder widths: 8’ (new bridge), no shoulders (existing bridge).

Because the channel width of the new bridge is 100 feet wider than that of the existing bridge, the navigation channel will be less problematic for barges, Burke said. The two protection cells - known as dolphins - which were installed in 1993 and in 2011 to protect the existing bridge from barge hits will be removed, he said.

The bulk of the construction work for the new bridge will take place alongside the old bridge beginning in 2024 and running through 2026. The new bridge is expected to be fully functional in 2027 and the old bridge will be removed.

A big question for area residents has centered on how long the Black Hawk Bridge would be closed during construction of the new bridge. Originally, the DOT said the bridge might have to close for up to five months. In response to community concerns and in recognition that “five months would have a massive impact,” Burke said, construction plans were amended.

“We’re going to ‘stage’ construction, and do it one piece at a time,” Burke said. “(The bridge) will be replaced in quadrants” - so one line of traffic, controlled with traffic signals, can remain open throughout most of the construction process. “There will be delays,” he said, because of the single-lane traffic. “But it will be open.” There will be about three weeks in 2026, however, when the crossing will be closed while the approach on the Wisconsin side of the bridge is constructed.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Mississippi Bridge project at Lansing, Konda told attendees, is that it involves the use of a 3-D computer model of the new bridge. Iowa, Konda said, has been “blessed with progressive people doing cutting-edge research. The Iowa DOT, in conjunction with Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, is on the leading edge of a lot of different transportation technologies, specifically with bridges.” This 3-D modeling, Konda said, is part of what they’re working on. “They’re ‘leading the charge’ on digital delivery for bridges.”

By 2030, Konda said, the Iowa DOT wants to be fully into digital. “There will be no more paper plans,” he said. “The model, itself, will be the contractual document; and engineers will be using the model for asset management far into the future.”

“A project of this caliber and complexity draws some of the best designers in the country,” Burke told attendees. “These bridges are seldom built, anymore.” Indeed, renowned experts in several fields have worked on, or are working on, this project - which Burke described as a “unique opportunity to work on a major steel through-truss bridge over the Mississippi River.”

“Robert Magliola with Parsons was in charge of designing the entire bridge,” Burke said. “I believe he is retired now; but he chose our bridge as one of his final projects because he was so excited about it.” Greg Hasbrouck, also with Parsons, “has been phenomenal to work with and has an impressive resume,” Burke added. “Al Nelson with HDR (a company specializing in engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services) provided an invaluable review of the design as third party to make sure absolutely everything was covered and checked multiple times. Al has an incredible amount of experience as a bridge section manager and is very well respected.” Paul Axtel with Dan Brown and Associates is, Burke continued, “a very well-known expert on drilled shaft foundations and developed our specifications for this project.”

The project also has, according to Burke, “many national leaders at the DOT, like Jim Hauber, who worked nights and weekends to make this project a success. Jim also leads several research efforts that are improving how we design and build projects.” A drill rig operator who is known as one of the best in his field reached out to the contractor wanting to be hired to be able to work on our project. “They’re planning to bring him in, with the exact crane and drill rig he has been operating on other major bridge projects,” Burke said.

Konda, too, has a national reputation. “Travis Konda has done interesting research to further his field,” Burke said. “He is a national leader on Transportation Research Board efforts; and on top of that, he has 16 years of field experience managing bridge projects.”

At the end of the talk, an attendee said, “I’m really glad I’m alive and living in the area, to see this happen.” Konda responded, “This is a big deal. You’ll see it change the face of the community.”

Burke smiled. “It’ll be 100 years before it happens again,” he said.

For more information about the bridge project and to sign up to receive project updates via email, visit the website for the project at iowadot.gov/lansingbridge. The project’s Facebook page can be reached by searching “Mississippi River Bridge at Lansing” on the social media site.