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I-80 bridge in Joliet needs fixes, work slated for spring

Interstate 80 bridge over the Des Plaines River in Joliet. | Google Earth

SPRINGFIELD – The bridge on Interstate 80 that spans the Des Plaines River has garnered recent media attention after state inspectors in a report early last year described sections of it as “critical,” “intolerable” and a “high priority for replacement.”

Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee brought a panel of three witnesses to discuss the bridge’s conditions.

“There’s a whole lot of [industrial] growth going on there, and our municipalities are attempting to deal with it as best they can,” said Hugh O’Hara, executive director of the Will County Governmental League. “But concerns about the safety of the bridge are making that more and more difficult.”

About 18 percent of I-80 traffic is freight vehicles, according to Carl Puzey, the Illinois Department of Transportation’s chief engineer for bridges and structures.

Puzey’s colleague, IDOT Director of Highways Paul Loete, said freight traffic generally causes a high degree of wear and tear on roads and bridges.

“And there’s no question that if you look at our bridges up and down I-80 from Iowa to Indiana,” Loete added, “that corridor maintains a high degree of truck traffic, and bridges are in general less than their ideal service lives because of it.”

The I-80 bridge in Joliet is case in point. During Tuesday’s hearing, Democratic Rep. Lawrence Walsh, of Joliet, raised concerns about IDOT’s “sufficiency score” for the westbound lane, which stands at 6 out of 100. Anything below 80 is considered deficient.

“When folks are on Facebook and social media and they’re talking on the radio, that’s a scary number,” Walsh said.

Puzey said IDOT’s sufficiency ratings are not just indications of structural safety, but take into account the number of lanes on a bridge, average daily traffic, roadway width, type of structure, clearances and more.

In mid-February, Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk announced his plans to divert traffic away from the Des Plaines bridge until the state developed a plan for repairs. He reversed course after IDOT insisted the bridge was structurally safe.

Loete said IDOT plans to start maintenance on the bridge this spring, but does not have an exact date. Without dedicated funds from a legislative capital plan, the department is struggling to maintain its 86 million square feet of bridge deck area in the state system.

The I-80 bridge, he said, is becoming more of a priority, as “the time is coming where funding is needed to address the overall condition of the bridges.”