ROCKFORD — City engineers estimate the 97-year-old Jefferson Street bridge has less than 20 years of useful life remaining, and they don’t want to wait until crunch time to plan what comes next.
Public Works Director Kyle Saunders said the “gorgeous” 1,500-foot bridge is the longest, most identifiable and perhaps most picturesque bridge maintained by the city. It provides a critical east-west connection, serving as the westbound leg of US Business 20 to cross the Rock River.
Despite its age, the bridge does not pose any imminent danger, Saunders said.
“Our goal is to be out well ahead of it becoming dangerous,” he said, adding that the bridge has 15 to 20 years left of useful life and doesn’t have any load restrictions beyond what’s legal.
“It’s not at risk at this point of any type of structural failure.”
Built in 1925, it is what designers call an open-spandrel arch bridge in which the bridge deck is supported by a system of arches and columns. It accommodates four lanes of westbound traffic and sidewalks 5-feet wide on either side. Vehicles enter the bridge at ground level at North First Street in downtown Rockford before crossing over North Madison Street and North Water Street and then crossing the river.
In 1966, the bridge was removed and rebuilt, serving until 1994 when a deck and substructure rehabilitation was performed. In 2014, $1.4 million worth of repairs were made to the columns and beams.
A pedestrian bridge which was added by the Rockford Park District to the Jefferson Street bridge in 1988 at a cost of $1.6 million. It was closed for safety concerns in 2015. After undergoing a $2.5 million repair and rehabilitation, the pedestrian bridge re-opened in June 2020.
Saunders said in coming months and years, the city plans to consult with the park district, residents and others to determine how to design a replacement bridge and multi-use path. Rockford recently applied for a $250,000 grant to help with the public engagement and planning process.
Saunders said he wants the city to be ready to move forward when the time comes to move forward with bridge replacement. It could also help in finding state and federal funds for what is sure to be an expensive public works project.
“We want to know what the community wants to see,” Saunders said. “Do they want to see that iconic arch bridge? Do they want to see other decorative elements? Do they want to see an above grade crossing? Do they want to see it possibly touch down at Madison Street? Do they want a pedestrian bridge underneath it?”
A Rockford Register Star reporter since 2005, Jeff Kolkey writes about city government, politics, trends in the Rockford region and more. He is a Rockford resident, a married father of two and a White Sox fan. He can be reached at (815) 987-1374, via email at [email protected] and on Twitter @jeffkolkey.