CHICAGO (STMW) - If the historic Wells Street Bridge had eyes, it would have seen the last streetcar run through the city.
Built in 1922, the bascule — or movable — bridge is the second-longest bridge in Chicago. The double-decker carries cars, bikes and people on the lower level, and its upper level supports CTA Brown and Purple Line trains to and from the Loop. It also goes up and down to allow boats to pass under as they sail along the Chicago River.
But with a poor rating from the National Bridge Inventory database last year, it's time for a major revamp of the historic bridge for safety reasons.
It was last rehabilitated in 1955, and there's quite a bit of corrosion from salt and wear and tear from Chicago's extreme weather.
The city has been planning the work for more than a year but only recently got a $22.5 million boost in state funding for the restoration project.
On-site work and road closures will begin in December. That means no vehicles, bicycles or people on the Wells Street Bridge. The construction project will be finished by December 2013, according to city Department of Transportation spokesman Pete Scales.
In its planning process, the city has said CTA trains will be minimally affected — meaning train service might be curtailed only during the weekends, and CTA buses that travel down Wells will be rerouted.
But the CTA says those plans haven't been finalized, and that the agency is continuing discussions with city planners.
Bridge buffs shouldn't worry. Design aspects of the bridge won't be touched, Scales said. The operator's house will be restored to preserve the historic bridge, and the existing railings will be replaced with new ones that maintain the original design.
So what will change? Crews will replace the trusses and all of the steel framing for the lower-level road and upper-level railway structures. All its major structural components and mechanical and electrical systems will be replaced.
Farhad Ansari, professor of civil and materials engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he's not surprised major repair of the bridge is planned.
"A low rating doesn't necessarily mean damage, but it means that it requires a lot of rehabbing or it will get to the shape where it becomes dangerous very, very soon," Ansari said. "I think [the city] trying to do that now is the right thing to do."
Despite its problems, which have been accelerated by age, the Wells Street Bridge's design remains unusual and very Chicago, experts said.
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