BREAKING NEWS/EXPANDED INFORMATION: As reported first earlier on QuadCities.com, Mississippi River cleanup champion Chad Pregracke and a newly formed foundation unveiled conceptual plans tonight (March 18) for repurposing the I-80 bridge over the Mississippi River into a wildlife crossing and pedestrian parkway called Bison Bridge.

Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands & Waters.

Pregracke, president/founder of Living Lands & Waters, joined fellow members of the new Bison Bridge Foundation at East Moline’s Rust Belt to announce the grassroots effort and professional concept for the existing Fred Schwengel Memorial Bridge.

“I truly believe that tonight is one of the most important talks of my life,” the East Moline native said Thursday night, streamed live on Facebook and the new website, www.bisonbridge.org. “There’s been a lot of work from a lot of people to get here tonight. This is gonna be big. It’s really outside the box, big thinking.”

“If you just think about it, I think you’ll like it,” Pregracke said.

At the start of his talk, he noted the Midwest and Q-C is losing in a lot of ways, particularly in population, to the Southern U.S. “The warmer weather is stealing our people, it truly is. Not only our people, but our young talent. Every company around here – John Deere, Alcoa, every small company, every big company will tell you the same. They can’t get young talent to

A planned viewing area on the repurposed pedestrian bridge.

come here, let alone stay here.”

The Bison Bridge project is vital, Pregracke said, because “we need something that puts us on the map.” He noted very few people outside the Quad-Cities have ever heard of the area.

The first impressions of Illinois and Iowa for cross-country travelers is the I-80 bridge, he said. “That’s 42,000 impressions we have. People aren’t even stopping for gas,” Pregracke said. “They’re just driving on by.”

The long-term vision is to turn the Bison Bridge and the acreage on either side of the Mississippi River adjacent to the bridge into a new National Park. Visitors will have the chance to learn about the history of the prairie, native wildlife, and the historical significance of the river.

With over 42,000 cars a day traveling over the Mississippi on I-80, the Bison Bridge will attract locals and visitors alike for the chance to experience all the river and the region have to offer, according to project supporters.

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Completed in 1966, the four-lane Fred Schwengel Memorial Bridge connects the Q-C between LeClaire, Iowa, and Rapids City, Ill. In 2020, the Illinois Department of Transportation began a preliminary study to replace the bridge. (The bridge was renamed in 1995 in honor of the

The planned renovation of the bridge, for wildlife, pedestrians and bikers.

former Iowa Congressman.)

After forming Living Lands & Waters in 1998, Pregracke has had this bridge idea for 20 years, to make this an iconic attraction for the region.

“There’s not a better bridge,” he said Thursday, noting it’s 65 feet wide, and like a rolling hill. “For what I want to do, there is not a better bridge.”

LL&W has been working on prairie restoration next to the bridge on the Illinois side.

The project’s reveal comes as the Illinois Department of Transportation is studying the future of the 55-year-old infrastructure and preparing to make decisions about the location and design of a new I-80 replacement bridge.

At The Rust Belt event — dubbed “A Historic Night in the Quad Cities” — Pregracke outlined the Foundation’s vision for transforming the aging bridge into a one-of-a-kind national treasure. The project would showcase and celebrate America’s second longest river and national mammal – the American bison.

The current westbound span would be retrofitted as a wildlife crossing and the eastbound side would be the pedestrian area, including a visitors center, interpretive signage and many viewing points.

The project is much more than the bridge, but all the lands around it, almost 100 acres on both sides of the river.

The true “out of the box” is including a small herd of bison in the westbound lane – creating the largest wildlife bridge crossing in the world, Pregracke said. “Bison could literally eat their way over to Iowa and eat their way back to Illinois,” he said.

He envisioned the bridge as a romantic getaway as well, and a potential picturesque wedding spot. It’s also a natural attraction for the Quad Cities Marathon and RAGBRAI, he said.

“People will stop and watch wildlife,” Pregracke said. “The real deal is the Mississippi River; that’s what’s getting celebrated here.”

“I’m not a bison expert; I just think they’re the coolest animal,” he said. “There were 60 million at one time. In the early 1900s, there were only a couple thousand left. They should be celebrated; they were here.”

“We need this place to thrive,” Pregracke said of the Quad-Cities. “It’s not just about bison on a bridge.”

The I-80 bridge over the Mississippi River opened in 1966 and was renamed in 1995 the Fred Schwengel Memorial Bridge, two years after the death of the former Iowa Congressman.

Starting a national park was recently done in 2017, by the woman who owned Burt’s Bees, in Maine. “It’s doable; and I think if it’s anytime, it’s right now with *this project,” Pregracke said.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, Roxanne Quimby donated around 87,500 acres of land in Maine to create a national monument called Katahdin Woods and Waters.

“If you’re going to have a national park; you gotta have a structure; you’ve got to have more than bison,” Pregracke said. “You’ve got to have something worthy of people stopping to experience, right?”

“This is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen – it’s a forest on a bridge, with bison on it and people on it,” he said. “People will stop, they will.”

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“I would never waste your time – I think this is completely doable,” Pregracke said. “Guys, we’re not building a bridge. It’s already there. We either blow it up and squander the opportunity, right? And on top of that, we lose the opportunity by spending $30 to $40 million to lose the opportunity for a replacement bike lane on the new bridge and to tear this one down. It’s a no-brainer to me – a fantastic opportunity,

A rendering of the Bison Bridge at night, with a raised bike trail and meeting space below.

something iconic, something people will stop and put the Quad-Cities back on the map.”

“Thousands and thousands of people will talk about it from all over the world,” he said, noting John Riches of Arconic suggested a webcam on it to watch the bison.

“It will literally put us back on the map,” Pregracke said. He encouraged everyone to visit the site – and like, click and share it.

He showed a video form Jason Baldes, tribal buffalo program manager with the National Wildlife Foundation, supporting the plan.

“Buffalo or bison was life’s commissary for my grandmas and grandpas – it was food, clothing, shelter,” he said. “This is why I’m very proud to be part of the Bison Bridge Foundation’s project to convert vacated lands to bison grazing.

“Buffalo are very important; they’re our national mammal,” Baldes said. “Many Americans don’t know the story of buffalo and Native Americans, or how important it is today to restore buffalo to our landscapes – for ecological integrity, but also for cultural revitalization. I’m very glad to join you this evening; I swish I could be there in person. I look forward to being part of this project and seeing it move forward.”

World’s longest wildlife bridge

 “This will help put the Quad-Cities on the map, literally. It will be an iconic stop on Interstate 80 to the 42,000 people who cross it each day,” said Pregracke, an award-winning environmentalist and entrepreneur, named in 2013 as CNN’s Hero of the Year.

The repurposed bridge would include grassland and other vegetation for roaming American bison.

“I will agree with anyone who thinks, ‘This is a far-out project.’ It’s wild. It’s not been done anywhere in the world, but it’s exactly what the Quad-Cities needs. We need something that will make people stop here and say, ‘Wow!’”

The Foundation’s goal is to garner community support for repurposing the bridge into a multiuse facility. Under the plan, the westbound lanes would be retrofitted into a crossing for wildlife, including a small herd of American bison it plans to steward.

The eastbound lanes would be converted into a pedestrian viewing area and park safely distanced from the wildlife. It would boast a visitors’ center, interpretive signage and multiple viewing points for visitors to walk about and enjoy the wildlife and picturesque views of the river valley as well as neighboring LeClaire and Rapids City.

“This would be the longest wildlife bridge in the world,” Pregracke said. “We’re not building a bridge. We’re just trying to save what is there.”

With 100 acres of grazing land on either side of the river and new prairie plantings planned for the bridge, the bison would live and roam across the bridge and in Iowa and Illinois, where millions of the majestic animals once roamed.

Behind-the-scenes planning

For the past two-and-a-half years, Pregracke has been assembling his Foundation team and quietly presenting the concept to key decision

A rendering of the landscaped human side of the bridge.

makers across the bi-state area. The Foundation is made up of a cross-section of organizations and leaders from multiple states who span the nonprofit, transportation, tourism, economic development, wildlife management and conservation sectors.

Foundation member Kevin Marchek, a retired Illinois DOT regional engineer, said the timing of the concept’s presentation is advantageous, in that IDOT is in phase one of the I-80 bridge study. The study follows a required process outlined by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

“The most important thing (for Bison Bridge) is we’ve started this in the early stages of the process where we can impact the outcome,” said Marchek, who had been involved through IDOT in the planning of the area’s new I-74 bridge now under construction.

Foundation member Matt Hughes, a transportation consultant in Springfield, Ill., said the group has done its due diligence – landing critical meetings to present the concept to lawmakers, transportation leaders and community and business leaders. “The last two years we’ve navigated a lot of things. We actually have a big project here with a lot of people paying attention to it,” he said.

The East Moline native, who’s been friends with Pregracke since childhood, recalled the project’s simple start as sketches on a posterboard. While the presentation has come a long way, Hughes said, “I prepared Chad to hear the word ‘No’ a lot, and we didn’t hear ‘No.’ We were well received.”

Bridge alternatives

Hughes, president and owner of MRH Solutions, Springfield, said one of the benefits for the Foundation is that IDOT has included a new

A rendering of one of the viewing areas over the river.

bridge crossing and funding in its five-year capital plan. “They are committed to a new crossing,” he said.

Pregracke didn’t outline any cost estimates for Bison Bridge Thursday. He and Marchek said the bridge study likely will result in up to six alternatives for replacing the I-80 bridge.

“But there doesn’t seem to be an engineering case to rehab the existing bridge,” said Hughes, who also worked at IDOT for a decade. “To me, it’s highly likely they will build another structure.”

The Foundation’s efforts now will shift toward public education. “We need the community’s support, and not monetarily, to help in the NEPA process that the DOTs are going through now,” Marchek said.

Increased visibility

 Pregracke said his ultimate goal is to secure national park status for Bison Bridge to help raise the Q-C’s stature, which could aid in growing

The logo for the new Bison Bridge Foundation.

its population as well as recruiting and retaining workforce talent.

“I feel like this will be a really big attraction and people will come from all over the world to this place,’ he said. “This will put us back on the map, and if you’re not on the map, nobody is moving their headquarters here.”

The project already is receiving support from a number of area organizations, including the Quad Cities Chamber and Visit Quad Cities.

“This touches our tourism master plan on so many levels,” said Dave Herrell, president and CEO of Visit Quad Cities.

In what is a very competitive tourism landscape, he said destination organizations tend to focus

on marketing their existing attractions. “But to be able to take an old asset and repurpose it into something new, I think that’s the secret sauce.”

Dave Herrell is president/CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber, Visit Quad Cities.

Herrell said the Bison Bridge project not only will set the Q-C region apart from all its Mississippi River counterparts, but it will also raise its visibility as a destination nationally and internationally.

With concerns for health and safety heightened by Covid, he said, “The outdoors is going to be more and more critical as we think of what we want to be as a destination and how we take our global asset – the Mississippi River – and elevate it to a new level.”

Repurposing bridges has been done across the country, including New York City, Cincinnati, Louisville, Ky., and Chattanooga, Tenn., Pregracke said in his presentation, which included a great deal of photos, renderings and video.

Through LL&W, he’s lived on barges in the latter three cities, and seen those bridges up close. Louisville is his favorite. “It’s truly a scene,” he said. “There’s playing congas, drum circles, people playing guitar, skating, walking. It is where you take your cousins if you’re coming to Lousiville, take your date. It’s an amazing place.”

Gathering public support

A birds-eye view of biking over the planned bridge.

Pregracke urged those watching Thursday to support and spread the word of the plans, not specifically to donate money.

“Our role at the Bison Bridge Foundation is to convince these agencies to build an entirely new structure at a location that allows for the existing bridge to remain in place and be repurposed into what we envision as the Bison Bridge,” the site www.bisonbridge.org says.

“We need your support – your signatures – to demonstrate public opinion that the Bison Bridge project is a worthwhile investment. Phase I engineering is now underway in Winter 2021, and it is this phase in which our opportunity lies to get our project considered for approval by the State of Illinois and the Federal Highways Administration.

“Phase II engineering will include plans for demolition of the existing bridge and plans for constructing the new one,” the site says. “The Bison Bridge Foundation hopes to change the narrative to include repurposing the existing bridge rather than demolishing it.

“Your support is critical in 2021 as the Departments of Transportation make decisions about how to move forward with the existing bridge and the new bridge. We expect construction to begin in approximately 2026 following the completion of Phase I and Phase II engineering and design work.”

A replay of the Thursday announcement, signature forms, and much more can be found at www.bisonbridge.org.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.