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February 14, 2003 1:37 PM

When tolls eliminated in April, Centennial Bridge traffic should double

By Carol Loretz, Staff writer

ROCK ISLAND -- When the Centennial Bridge opened July 12, 1940, even pedestrians had to pay tolls.

The 5-cent walkers' fee ended in 1960, and Quad-Citians eagerly await elimination of today's vehicle tolls from the span between Rock Island and Davenport. The city expects them to end by late April, when enough money has been raised to upgrade the bridge before the state of Illinois takes ownership from the city.

Operation of the bridge is supported entirely by tolls, not taxes. A five-person commission, the Rock Island mayor and four appointees, oversees it.

Several years ago, Rock Island decided Illinois and Iowa should take ownership of the bridge, as the responsibilities of owning a bi-state bridge were unusual for a local government, Mayor Mark Schwiebert said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, however, was not eager to take the job.

When bridge use was analyzed as part of an area traffic flow and needs study, the study showed the area needs more bridge capacity for traffic crossing the Mississippi River. The Centennial Bridge was the least used because of its tolls, the mayor said.

``That's what triggered the takeover,'' he said. Removing tolls is expected to increase usage by 15,000 vehicles a day, double the current amount. The increase would come from 10,000 vehicles now using the Government Bridge and 5,000 from the Interstate 74 bridge.

``Removing the tolls seemed a simple and direct way to reduce congestion elsewhere,'' Mayor Schwiebert said.

Over the years, vehicle tolls gradually increased:

-- 1940-1979: 10 cents.

-- 1979-1981: 15 cents.

-- 1981-1991: 25 cents.

-- 1991-present: 50 cents.

Traffic bottlenecks between Rock Island and Davenport go back as far as the 1930s, said bridge manager Sue Nelson. In 1935, the mayors of each city appointed members of a Bridge and Tunnel Commission to find a solution.

At first, they considered building a tunnel, which would not need federal action because river navigation would not be affected. On the other hand, a tunnel would be more expensive to maintain than a bridge.

Before Davenport could help build a tunnel, the law required voters to ratify an enabling act. Illinois law, however, permitted Rock Island to erect a bridge through a bridge commission, a faster process.

As a result, then-Rock Island Mayor Robert P. Galbraith appointed a commission and sought federal approval.

Neither the federal government nor Rock Island had enough money to build and maintain the bridge, so tolls seemed the only option. Rock Island officials, who did not want to tax the city's property owners, proposed the tolls as a way for users to pay their fair shares.

After many meetings and trips to the nation's capital, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill on March 19, 1938, authorizing construction. A month later, the Davenport City Council authorized Rock Island to build the Iowa approach. The city sold revenue bonds to pay for construction of the $2.5 million project.

The Secretary of War also approved Rock Island's permit on May 19, 1938, and construction began March 6, 1939. Three hundred workers participated on the project without a single fatality and a minimum number of injuries.

To honor Mayor Galbraith's efforts, the city council voted to name the project the Galbraith Bridge. He said he had a better idea: Name it the Rock Island Centennial Bridge to honor the city's 100th year.

The Centennial Bridge, a series of five arches, was the first four-lane bridge and the only one of its kind to cross the Mississippi River. Its tied-arch construction features arches held together at the bottom like the string on a bow, making each arch independent of all the others, Ms. Nelson said.

Each arch goes from one abutment on the ground to another, which keeps the bridge stable. The bridge rests on concrete and steel piers that sit on beds of rock beneath the water.

The bridge is 3,850 feet long and rises 170 feet above water level. It took 22,100 cubic yards of concrete, including its piers, and 9,750 tons of steel to build. It took 3,000 gallons of paint -- enough to put one coat on 1,760 houses -- to cover the bridge.

In 1988, a group called Lights! River! Action! raised money to install lights on the arches. The group still pays for maintaining the lights and for the electricity to light them. No toll money ever has been used to support the arch lights, Ms. Nelson said.

Today, about 5 million vehicles cross each year, generating $2.5 million.

Photographers have used the bridge as a centerpiece or backdrop for many scenes, and the beautiful, lighted bridge has become a symbol of the Quad-Cities.

Staff writer Carol Loretz can be reached at 786-6441, Ext. 209, or by e-mail at loretz@qconline.com .