DOT reviews safety on Julien Dubuque bridge

The Julien Dubuque Bridge is a visual icon for the city of Dubuque, and its neighbor across the river in East Dubuque, Ill.

The Julien Dubuque Bridge serves 17,700 vehicles per day, down from 26,700 in 2001. (Aaron Scheinblum, KCRG)

After a second fatal crash on the bridge in 2018, some members of local law enforcement want to see changes to improve safety when crossing from state to state.

In April, a Paramount Ambulance was involved in a fatal crash on the Illinois side of the bridge. Near the end of November, there was another fatal accident; with one lane going each way, and nowhere to pull off the road, law enforcement said a man was struck after his car broke down.

The bridge looks almost the same as it did when it was first constructed 75 years ago, in 1943. It creates challenges for drivers and law enforcement daily, and whether to make changes to the bridge is two-fold: what changes would be made, and when the changes would occur.

To do any work on the bridge, whether reconstruction or rehabilitation, it requires a joint effort from both the Iowa Department of Transporation and the Illinois Department of Transportation. The costs are split 50/50, but the Iowa DOT is in charge of providing staffers to perform the work. States alternate responsibilities based on geographical location- therefore the next bridge south (the Savanna-Sabula Bridge) would be the responsibility of the Illinois DOT to staff.

Regardless of who is responsible for the work, law enforcement wants to see changes sooner rather than later, as it creates challenges for both drivers and police to do their jobs.

"There's really not a good way of doing enforcement up there," said Chief Steve O'Connell of the East Dubuque, Ill. Police Department. "Because it's a two lane bridge, there's no shoulders, there's no place to get off, so how do you run radar unless you're moving?"

"It's just something we have to deal with both with response to accidents and our traffic enforcement," said Lt. Joe Messerich of the Dubuque Police Department.

The difficulties have led the Dubuque Police Department to focus efforts on alternative ways of enforcement- right off the bridge.

"We'll have stopped cars waiting on our side of the bridge to catch motorists speeding coming across to the Iowa side," Lt. Messerich said. "That's a traffic project that we do from time to time, especially late at night to catch impaired drivers."

With restrictions for law enforcement, especially on the bridge, it is admittedly a challenge for drivers to avoid sometimes fatal accidents.

TV9 reviewed the fatal crash numbers from 2018 to 2008 and found there has been only one fatality on the Dubuque side of the bridge since 2009. The Illinois DOT provided fatal crash totals from their side of the Julien Dubuque Bridge, citing one: the Paramount crash from April 2018. But TV9 cited a fatality from a 2014 crash on the Illinois side of the bridge, where an arrest was made and a plea deal was reached. The numbers provided to the Illinois DOT are collected and sent in by local law enforcement. The Illinois DOT said it was unclear what caused the disconnect between the East Dubuque Police Department and the Illinois DOT.

East Dubuque Police said they can recall "at least five" fatal crashes in the last three to four years- and they would like to see a four lane bridge with a shoulder.

"We need to be able to stop traffic in one way, utilize traffic in the other way, be able to get people off the roadways so traffic can stay flowing," Chief O'Connell said. "That's probably the second most important thing is when you have an issue, you have to keep vehicles moving."

It might seem simple to make the bridge wider- but engineers with the Iowa DOT say it is not as simple as it seems.

"Because of the truss members dictating your width... it'd be impossible to widen the roadway with the bridge the way it is," said Hugh Holak, Resident Construction Engineer at the Iowa DOT Manchester office.

In 2010, there were plans to add another bridge next to the existing one to improve the flow of traffic. The Iowa DOT purchased land to construct the adjacent bridge. The Iowa DOT still owns the land today. The project never happened, citing a decline in traffic and lack of funding.

Numbers from the Iowa DOT show the total number of cars per day has dropped significantly since 2001. In 2001, 26,700 cars drove across the bridge daily. In 2017, the number shrunk to 17,700.

"Since [2010], that additional bridge has fallen out of our five-year program," said Sam Shea, District Transportation Planner for the Iowa DOT. "We're still trying to coordinate with the Illinois DOT to find a time that works best for them to get it back into the program."

The Illinois DOT said any work related to the Julien Dubuque Bridge is not in their plans for the next six years. Shea said if it was up to the Iowa DOT, the project would be third in line.

"Once we're done with I-74, Interstate 80 would be our next major bridge focus, and then probably the Julien Dubuque," Shea said.

At that point, Shea predicts it could be around 2027 before construction on the Julien Dubuque Bridge would take place. At that point, the bridge will be close to 85 years old. The original lifespan of the bridge was about 100 years, but various improvements and maintenance is consistently done to the bridge. At that point, they will have to research again and determine if it makes more sense to work on the current bridge, or construct a new one.

"It's just not going to happen soon enough," Chief O'Connell said. "I probably won't be here, unfortunately, but it's not going to happen soon enough."

The DOT along with the city of Dubuque is considering adding additional cameras on the bridge, similar to what the city already has in place. The DOT plans to add conduit when it works to improve the lighting on the bridge during the next construction cycle. With the conduit in place, it does not rule out either city potentially adding speed cameras on the bridge down the road, if a city chooses to utilize them as a form of law enforcement.