After several years with pedestrians having no safe passage from the west side of downtown to the east, an improved bridge reopened in the summer of 2020 to benefit the city of Rockford.
“It was a safety issue,” said Rockford Park District Capital Asset Manager Mark Smith. “The bridge is used a lot. It’s right downtown, and it offers transportation for pedestrians to reach one side of downtown to the other side so they can do shopping, go to stores, (etc). It (does) not just help pedestrians, it helps the economy.”
The pedestrian bridge, roughly 700 feet long, is a main thoroughfare for bicyclists and pedestrians seeking to pass over the Rock River for Rockford, which has a population of just under 150,000.
“I work downtown, just next to where the pedestrian bridge is, and I know that I regularly used it as a citizen to get to the other side for lunches or shopping as well as the Rockford City Market on Friday nights,” said Sydney Turner, director of regional planning for R1. “Being able to walk comfortably from where I work on the west side of the river to the east side where there’s commercial and cultural aspects is really important.”
Constructed in 1988, the Jefferson Street pedestrian bridge was unpainted steel but supposed to last for many years, Smith explained. As was intended, the bridge developed an acceptable rust look, but in 2015, the bridge had to be closed because portions of it had begun deteriorating at a faster rate than expected.
“There was salt and water and other things coming onto the bridge from the street above that contributed to its demise, besides the fact that we, the Park District, were salting the pedestrian bridge in the wintertime,” Smith explained. “It seemed to be a popular thing back then, to leave the steel unpainted. It seemed to be less maintenance. Every few years, you’d have to paint, so they were trying this new system of weathered steel where you don’t paint it, and it turns a rust color and just stays like that, but in this situation, there was additional salt and so forth; it didn’t last.”
The Rockford Park District is a separate entity from the city of Rockford and thus its own taxing body.
“I want to stress the importance of collaboration in this,” Smith explained.
The Rockford Park District worked with the city of Rockford; the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program; the Illinois Department of Transportation; the Region 1 Planning Council; and Larson & Darby Group’s design team to fund, build and design the new project.
“The more people you get involved, the more support you’re going to get and the less problems you’ll have down the road.”
The Region 1 Planning Council received the Rockford Park District’s proposal during a call for projects after receiving a grant from the state.
“Knowing that it was a pivotal connection point for bicyclists and pedestrians in our region, we made the recommendation to our technical and policy committees to fund the project,” Turner said.
It was an ITEP grant that ultimately allowed the Rockford Park District to restore the bridge. Smith attributes their success in replacing the bridge with the money from the ITEP grant.
“There is no way we could have replaced the bridge in the small amount of time that we had with the cost of $2.5 million ourselves,” he said.
The 80/20 grant made it so the park district would contribute $500,000 and ITEP would fund the additional $2 million. In 2019, with the help of IDOT since Jefferson Street is a state road, construction began on the new pedestrian bridge.
This time around the city and the hired design team made the decision to coat the bridge in marine paint to better protect it from the seasonal damage.
They also installed canopies that function similar to gutters to catch the water and divert it directly into the river below.
“I think those two things combined are addressing the issues we had with the original bridge,” Smith said.
Another upgrade to the bridge was the lighting system. When it was initially constructed, the lights on the pedestrian bridge were halogen-based. Given the amount of energy halogen lights use, the design team at Larson & Darby decided to update the lighting to LED to reduce energy costs.
One of the most fascinating parts of the newly constructed bridge is the theme created by the design team, which further incorporated a natural theme into the bridge — beyond the water-diverting canopies — with railings covered in painted steel leaves.
“A lot of pedestrians were upset when we closed it and didn’t really understand why,” Smith said. “We made sure we reached out to the city and different entities to educate them on what was happening with the bridge, and the more people that understood, that word got spread out and people who used it and depended on it understood and weren’t quite as upset as they were in the beginning.”
While the Jefferson Street Bridge, which transports vehicles directly above the pedestrian bridge has a walking path, it’s not a safe alternative and shutting down the pedestrian bridge for safety was a difficult decision for community leaders. Now that it has reopened and regaining use, the city is beginning to benefit again from its use.
Turner added the library, which is currently under construction, also leads directly to the bridge.
“A lot of people use that bridge, and it’s really important to our downtown.”