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As one of the nation’s river cleanup champions, Chad Pregracke now is floating a new idea — turning the Interstate 80 (I-80) Mississippi River into a Bison Bridge where wildlife can roam freely and visitors can enjoy panoramic views.
Pregracke, president and founder of Living Lands and Waters (LLW), is pitching the idea of repurposing the bridge’s span into separate wildlife and pedestrian crossings. The concept — a couple years in the making — is being promoted as transportation leaders study plans for replacing the 55-year-old infrastructure.
The interstate bridge, now named Fred Schwengel Memorial Bridge, connects the states of Illinois and Iowa.
For Pregracke, who first earned national acclaim for his one-man Mississippi River cleanups, the Bison Bridge represents a means of putting his hometown Quad Cities “on the map” with a one-of-a-kind tourism attraction.
“It will be an iconic stop on Interstate 80 to the 42,000 people who cross it each day,” says Pregracke, whose environmental leadership earned him a CNN Hero award in 2013.
Under the plan, the bridge’s westbound lanes would be retrofitted into a crossing for wildlife, including a small herd of American bison that the foundation plans to steward. The eastbound lanes would be converted into a pedestrian viewing area and park complete with a visitor’s center and recreational path. By maintaining two spans, visitors to the park could be safely distanced from the wildlife.
“This would be the longest wildlife bridge in the world,” says Pregracke, who sees the idea as “a game changer” and a potential economic development driver for the Quad Cities region.
The long-term goal would be for Bison Bridge to eventually become part of the National Parks system. It is the latest project for Pregracke and LLW, which, since 1998, has removed almost 11 million pounds of debris from the nation’s waterways. With the added help of some 118,000 volunteers in communities across the country, the LLW team has helped clean up 24 rivers in 21 states.
Bison Bridge is a plan that Pregracke and a talented group of advocates have been quietly presenting for more than two years to key decision-makers. The Bison Bridge Foundation comprises a cross-section of organizations and leaders from multiple states representing the nonprofit, transportation, tourism, economic development, wildlife management and conservation sectors.
In March, Pregracke and the foundation unveiled the concept during a live, virtual event aired from the Quad Cities. As part of the reveal, the foundation launched a signature campaign to garner more support. As of May, the group has collected nearly 30,000 signatures — well on its way toward reaching its goal of 50,000 signatures.
Pregracke plans to present the signatures to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has the responsibility for the study, design and construction of a new replacement bridge with support from the Federal Highways Administration and the Iowa Department of Transportation. The existing I-80 bridge was completed in 1966 and is between LeClaire, Iowa, and Rapids City, Illinois. As possible alternatives — including a new alignment — emerge for a new bridge, the foundation hopes to make its case for transforming the old span into Bison Bridge.
Jennifer DeWitt is a Freelance Writer.