Thanks to Congress, and the federal stimulus dollars, Americans won't have to suffer that fate. Earlier this year, enough dollars were amassed to get construction started this fall.
Touring the bridge with Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, on Wednesday afternoon, BNSF vice president of government and public policy Paul Nowicki laid out what could have been and what will be.
"The contractor has already rented space in downtown Burlington ... and is open for business," Nowicki said.
He said the contract manager that was hired also oversaw construction of the 1994-dedicated Great River Bridge. David Duke, a Burlington native and Chicago resident, oversaw the $50 million vehicle-traffic bridge project, which was a joint effort between Iowa and Illinois. At the time, Burlington's bridge had the 13th longest span in the United States, at 660 feet.
Nowicki said converting the old swing-span bridge into a lift-span bridge, which will double the navigation channel for barges in the Mississippi River, will bring 200-210 workers to Burlington. He added that it's all going to be union labor, with some workers being local hires and others outside experts.
Nowicki praised Sen. Tom Harkin and Congressman Dave Loebsack, both Iowa Democrats, for finally securing enough funding to convert the bridge. He said Harkin has been working to raise funds since 1991 when the bridge was deemed a hazard to navigation.
Actually, the total was $28.7 million in stimulus funds, though Harkin and other Iowa members of Congress had over the years raised the rest up to the $55.5 million needed to get started. The total cost is about $56 million, and BNSF will make up the remaining 1 percent.
Nowicki said the swing-span method now takes about 50 minutes to open the bridge, get a barge through the navigation channel and close the bridge again.
"Ten or so times a year, they don't make it," Nowicki said. "This will add years to its life."
Once the lift-span bridge opens, in 12-15 months, the time will be cut in half; plus, wind speed will not be a factor in determining whether the bridge can be opened for barge traffic.
While construction is going on to convert the bridge to a lift-span bridge, Nowicki said BNSF is trying to secure funding to make improvements to the rest of the bridge.
That project will be $133 million, with BNSF making up $100 million of it. He said, with the help of Culver, the railway submitted an application to the federal government for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Grant, or TIGER, for $25 million. Nowicki said the remainder would be made up by the state of Illinois.
While BNSF is awaiting funding, Nowicki said the hope is to be able to get work under way to coincide with the lift-span conversion efforts. He said the engineering and environmental work is already complete for the second part of the bridge project.
During construction, the bridge will be closed between 24 hours and 72 hours at a time as new spans are put in place.
The first railroad bridge here was built in 1868. The current bridge was built in 1891, and it was the first steel bridge across the Mississippi River. Nowicki said at the time the average train weighed 400 tons; coal trains now haul as much as 13,000 tons.
"The bridge was overengineered for the era, but it paid off 118 years later," Nowicki said.