LANSING - As much of an inconvenience as having Highway 82 closed between Wisconsin and Iowa was for 12 days recently, perhaps that dark cloud did have a silver lining.In early April, the Blackhawk Bridge over the Main Channel of the Mississippi River adjoining Lansing was closed for a regularly scheduled round of inspections and maintenance. The work meant the connection between Wisconsin and Iowa was closed for a week.
Most everybody concerned knew it was coming and most everybody made plans. What it involves for a lot of people who live on one side of the river and work on the other is a long, long ride to work. It takes just minutes to drive from Highway 35 in Wisconsin across the Lansing Dike to Iowa or vice versa. When the Highway 82 connection is closed, it requires motorists to drive to either Prairie du Chien or LaCrosse to cross the river on the bridges located there. Both choices involve trips of 30 to 35 miles and often-another 30 to 35 miles back. Time invested ranges toward an hour-and-a-half and can approach two hours.
This is a two times a day trip–so people are looking at 130 to 140 miles and three or four hours of drive time. That’s instead of the usual 5 or 10 minutes, when they can take Highway 82 across the river.
Some workers from DeSoto, who work across the river in Lansing at Prairie Industries, created a carpool during the closures to save on gas and share the driving, according to Rose, a clerk at the Kwik Trip in Lansing.
Others were more inventive, like Elissa Strobel, a Lansing resident who works as a paraprofessional in the DeSoto School District. She caught a boatlift from her boyfriend, who owns Shep's Riverside Bar & Grill, located on the river in Lansing. Before the scheduled closure, Strobel positioned her vehicle east of the bridge. After her short boat ride, she scrambled up the bank on the dike, got to her car and drove to DeSoto.However, the second closure later in April was called by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation because of their fear the record high water in the Mississippi River might cause a washout of the dike. In a similar situation in May of 2017, high water washed out a portion of the dike and a fatal accident occurred, when a vehicle wound up in the river.
Because the section of road that was closed was only a half-mile from the Wisconsin side, positioning the car on the dike by the Iowa bridge wasn’t a possibility for Strobel during the second closure. So, Strobel received a boat ride all the way to DeSoto, where she made her way up the bank with the help of marginal railing once used by a greenhouse situated on the site. From there, a co-worker gave her a ride up the hill to the school.
Lansing resident Nick Mooney is a special ed teacher in DeSoto, who works with Strobel. Unlike Elissa, he did not have the option of using a boat. Being the DeSoto track coach meant he was never ready to leave until after dark and that ruled out boats on the flooded river. Mooney was stuck driving.
“She definitely got the better deal,” Mooney said of Strobel’s five to 10-minute boatlifts.
Mooney’s choice was going through Prairie du Chien both ways. The biggest drawback was the deer and turkeys on the road in Iowa, he noted. It was a complaint heard from others using the Prairie du Chien route.
Those using the bridge in LaCrosse to cross the river complained of traffic congestion during rush hours.
The point is whether you were driving around through LaCrosse or Prairie du Chien or boating to work like Strobel, it was a hassle.
And the sitaution didn’t just inconvenience commuting workers. People used to shopping on the other side or visiting restaurants couldn't make the trip either without turning it into a three or four-hour drive. The result was business declined on both sides of the river.
Paul Horsfall, the owner of the popular Horsfall’s Variety Store on Main Street in Lansing, could see the difference. He estimated business was off 60 percent. Across the street at the Kwik Trip, Rose said the decline in business was very noticeable.
It was the same for businesses on the Wisconsin side. Bars, restaurants and other businesses in DeSoto and Ferryvile definitely saw a decrease in business.
“Yes, there was a noticeable decline,” according to Jerry Books, owner of the Wooden Nickel Saloon in Ferryville. It was particularly noticeable on the bar’s Bingo and Trivia Nights that are regularly attended by people living in the Lansing area.
“People talk about a scenario where a barge hits the dolphin (a protective cement fixture in the river designed to protect the bridge from barge collisions) and then the bridge,” Books said. “They have to close it and that’s it. They’re not really ready to replace it. The plans are not approved. Then, you lose the business permanently.”
Books thinks the businesses in Lansing may be more impacted by the closure of Highway 82 than the businesses in Wisconsin.
“If it’s closed more than a week, it goes beyond an inconvenience,” Books said.
So what’s the silver lining in this dark cloud of delay and frustration?
The total of 12 days of closure of Highway 82 across the Lansing Dike in April proved a point–the communities in Iowa and Wisconsin are inextricably linked to each other and have been for many years. The social structure created over all of these years insists on the connector being intact. It’s built into the equation at this point with families and friends living on both sides of the river.
Paul Horsfall called Highway 82 and the Lansing Dike a vital connection.
Ferryville Village President Pat Delaney agrees with Horsfall’s assessment.
“It’s very important that we have some type of bridge,” Delaney said. “After having it there for 100 years, the impact to both sides of not having it would be traumatic.”
As an example, Delaney described the situation that Ferryville’s new public works employee, Dan Madsen, faced last month.
Madsen, a Lansing resident, started on a Monday by driving over to Ferryville. The rest of the week the bridge was closed for scheduled maintenance and he had to drive around to get to work. For a week, he drove across the dike and then it was shut down by the high water for another week.
Nick Mooney said that without the bridge and the dike to connect Iowa to Wisconsin, he would have to move to the side of the river where he worked, because commuting would not be viable as a long-term option.
And, there’s some concern locally about the viability of that connection being maintained going into the future.
For one thing, there are doubts about the future of the current Blackhawk Bridge over the Main Channel at Lansing. Despite lots of care and rebuilding, it’s approaching the end of its useful life.
Lansing Deputy City Clerk Dan Ellefson echoed the concerns of many about the future of the Blackhawk Bridge or its replacement.
“They (the Iowa DOT) have talked about ideas, but nothing is finalized,” Ellefson said. “There’s no exact timeline that we’ve heard about.”
The Iowa Department of Transportation is aware of the situation and has created six options that they will roll out for public input this summer, according to Krista Billhorn, a planner with IDOT.
Billhorn said the department is committed to keeping the river crossing in place.
The department hopes to have settled on an option a year from now, Billhorn explained. Bridge design is expected to take a year or more. So, the design could be completed two to two-and-a-half years from now. Depending on funding, construction could start then.
One option involves rehabbing the Blackhawk Bridge, but it has some down sides–like it would have to be closed for a year-and-a-half, while the work was being done and the fix would only last another 10 or 20 years. The reason the repair option must be considered is the bridge is considered to have historic value and is on the historic register.
The other options would minimize closure, but they are costly and the site presents a myriad of difficulties ranging from environmental to historic and beyond.
However, you sense a commitment to keeping this vital link between communities and states open.
Whether it’s the newly elected village president of Ferryvile, the deputy city clerk of Lansing, business owner Paul Horsfall, Jerry Books at the Wooden Nickel or a host of others, there seems to be a resolve that this connection needs to be kept open for so many reasons.
For its part, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is putting increased effort into maintaining the dike and the four smaller bridges it contains. Wisconsin will pay for half the cost of replacing or repairing the Blackhawk Bridge, but the Iowa DOT is the lead agency in designing and constructing the bridge.
What's next for the Lansing Dike and the Blackhawk Bridge? Stay tuned; the Iowa DOT has plans to present the options under consideration as early as July.Settling on an option is expected to take up to a year. The bridge design work could take another two years. Then, if it’s funded, construction could begin.