LANSING, Iowa — When the Black Hawk Bridge connecting Lansing to De Soto, Wis., opened in 1931, some thought the new cantilever through-truss bridge over the Mississippi River would make La Crosse’s old wagon bridge obsolete.
“La Crosse with its 39,868 people will have to start a definite and enticing campaign to induce tourist traffic to pass through and stop in the city,” city leaders said, according to the Feb. 8, 1931, edition of the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press.
Then La Crosse replaced its old wagon bridge with a new crossing on Cass Street in 1939, after a fatal car crash demolished part of the old structure.
Today, it’s the existing Black Hawk Bridge, also known as the Lansing bridge, that’s about to become obsolete.
The Iowa Department of Transportation is taking the lead on weighing four bridge replacement options against major repairs that would extend the useful life of the Black Hawk Bridge by 20 to 30 years maximum. Without intervention, the bridge will have to close by 2028.
Daily traffic on the Black Hawk Bridge — one of three Mississippi River crossings within the almost 70 miles from Prairie Du Chien to La Crosse and a critical route for local commuters — averages about 1,910 vehicles, almost 400 fewer than projected in the original 1931 prospectus used to raise funds for the bridge. By comparison, 16,500 vehicles use the Cass Street bridge per day, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
While the Black Hawk Bridge might be best known for its 7.18% incline, which gives motorists a rollercoaster-like feel, it’s also a historic bridge eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
As an older bridge, the Lansing bridge wasn’t built to accommodate today’s traffic. At 25 feet wide, it has two 10-foot lanes and no shoulders. Traffic is closed to one lane when extra-wide trucks go through or the bridge requires repairs, and the bridge is off limits to cyclists and pedestrians.
The Lansing bridge is also one of the trickier Mississippi River crossings to navigate from below. The bridge stretches about 650 feet over the main navigation channel where the river bends, short of the 770-feet span between piers now required by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has recorded six tow collisions with the bridge between 1987 and 1991, and the River Industry Action committee ranked the Black Hawk Bridge the 12th most difficult upper Mississippi River bridge to navigate in an 1991 survey, according to the 2004 DOT bridge replacement feasibility study.
The new bridge would have a main span of at least 770 feet and be built wider to accommodate two 12-foot travel lanes and 8-foot shoulders on either side, according to the DOT’s 2018 bridge project display.
Three of the four new bridge locations being considered by the DOT are within blocks from the current Ballou Street approach from the Iowa side, and would reuse the Big Slough Bridge over the back channels on the Wisconsin side. A fourth option that connects from downtown John Street, closer to more businesses and homes, would require a new slough bridge, but disturb fewer historic resources and archaeological sites.
Possible bridge designs, developed during a 2004 feasibility study, include arch and simple span truss bridges (between $60 million and $70 million), a continuous truss bridge (between $70 million and $80 million), and a cable stay bridge (more than $80 million.)
Because of the bridge’s historic value, the Iowa DOT is also considering a major rehabilitation at a cost of almost $30 million. This option, which would close the bridge to traffic for about a year and a half, would include replacing the stringers, floor beams, and deck, as well as stabilizing pier 3. The work would need to take place by 2024, and would extend the bridge’s remaining service life to 2048 at most. Because a new bridge will still need to be built, the DOT estimated the total cost to range between $107.7 million and $136.8 million.
If the bridge were left as is until 2028, it would cost $125,000 each year to inspect, as opposed to $75,000 for a new bridge. Approximately $1 million would also be required to maintain the bridge until 2028, at which point the bridge would be closed.
Either way, the current bridge could not be left as a bike or pedestrian walkway, the DOT said in its project display. “Because of the anticipated cost, neither the Iowa or Wisconsin DOTs nor the city of Lansing would be able to maintain the condition of the bridge for continued use, even by only pedestrians or bicyclists.”
The DOT is conducting an environmental assessment to look at how each option affects factors including land use, wetlands and waterways, floodplains, wildlife, plants, noise and light emissions, and historic, architectural and archaeological resources.
The findings will help the DOT narrow its options, said Krista Billhorn, Iowa DOT transportation planner. The environmental assessment will be shared in a public meeting held in June or July, Billhorn said, at which point the project will be open again to public comments.
“The community is very attached to this bridge, it’s very iconic,” Billhorn said.
Plans for a Lansing bridge date back to the turn of the 20th century at least, but it wasn’t until 1916 that Congress granted the Interstate Bridge Company a charter to build one. Construction didn’t take place until 1929 because of World War I. By then, the original charter had expired and a new contract was granted to the Iowa-Wisconsin Bridge Company.
The bridge, named for Sauk leader Chief Black Hawk to commemorate the centennial of the nearby Bad Axe Massacre, was designed by chief engineer Melvin B. Stone of Minneapolis. It cost $75,000 to build, spanned 1,623 feet, and the original bridge floor was asphalt plank on treated timber supported by steel beams.
“When complete, the bridge will sustain a maximum load of 30 tons in transit,” the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press reported ahead of the bridge’s June 17, 1931, opening.
The bridge was reinforced in the 1950s during a $1.3 million rehabilitation project to handle heavier truck loads, after it closed in 1945 due to ice dam damage.
Further strengthening of the bridge would be “very challenging from a technical perspective,” according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. “This bridge has a finite service life because of fatigue caused by the flexing of steel members under load.”
The bridge was closed for repairs after its 2011 inspection found cracks in the beams under the floor deck.
This April, the bridge was closed to replace deck panels and repair other steel structures.
Shani Tiber recalled meeting 3-year-old Kyson Rice at family reunions. She said Kyson and his Spider Man stuff were inseparable.
“Everywhere he went, he had Spider Man in his hand,” Tiber said. “He was a really sweet kid. He had the craziest smile, but it was adorable.”
It’s a smile Tiber will never see again. Kyson died May 3 in what Tomah police believe was an act of child abuse. Tiber and her Tomah High School classmates responded to the tragedy by wearing blue in Kyson’s honor Friday.
The groundswell to “turn Tomah blue” started in the classroom of Amy King, who teaches a leadership class.
“It was a lot of disbelief,” King said. “They were shocked; I think they generally cared right from the start. ... I think after the shock wore off, we were more willing to take a look at the bigger picture and what we could do.”
Students decided to reach out to the family and raise awareness of child abuse. Blue is the color associated with child-abuse prevention, and people are encouraged to wear blue ribbons during Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.
Tiber, a sophomore, said the class was working on another project when students learned about Kyson’s death.
“When we heard about this tragedy, we thought this would have a bigger impact on the community,” she said.
A critical part of the project was getting permission from the immediate family. Tiber started the process by contacting her aunt. She said it was an emotional moment.
“The moment I saw her, she cried, and then it really hit me that he was gone and that he was part of my family and that I’ll never see him again,” she said.
Alexis Spiers, a sophomore who helped organize the campaign, never met Kyson but was still deeply moved by the tragedy.
“As soon as I learned what happened, I knew we had to do something as a community,” she said.
Spiers was gratified by how her classmates responded. The high school was a sea of blue Friday with students wearing blue T-shirts, blue shoelaces and blue-ribbon face paint.
“It was crazy to see how it could spread so fast in three days,” Spiers said. “Now our whole community is wearing blue.”
King told students gathered in the gymnasium Friday that Kyson’s family was “in awe that you’re willing wrap your arms around their family and support them at this time.”
King said there has been less focus on the criminal justice element. The man accused of causing Kyson’s death, Marcus W. Anderson, has been charged with reckless homicide and child abuse causing significant bodily harm. He has a pre-trial conference scheduled at 1:30 p.m. Monday. A criminal complaint hadn’t been filed as of Friday afternoon.
“I don’t know if we have the power to end this,” King said. “What we have the power to do is show our compassion, our support and raise awareness.”
The man accused of causing Kyson’s death, Marcus W. Anderson, has been charged with reckless homicide.
“Everywhere he went, he had Spider Man in his hand. He was a really sweet kid. He had the craziest smile, but it was adorable.” Shani Tiber, Tomah sophomore
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul is taking a “shift in approach” from his Republican predecessor on prosecuting criminal fraud cases against unemployment benefit seekers.
After taking office in January, Kaul temporarily froze such prosecutions for about two months to re-assess the Department of Justice’s approach to them, according to spokeswoman Gillian Drummond. She framed it as one of several areas in which Kaul has re-evaluated the approach of his GOP predecessor.
Gov. Tony Evers’ Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman wouldn’t comment on whether his agency is similarly scaling back unemployment fraud enforcement — even as agency data show a significant drop in prosecution referrals compared with recent years. But he said his agency is looking to streamline surveys and paperwork for claimants in the state’s unemployment insurance program, amid concerns that it is confusing for some to navigate.
Frostman acknowledged concerns that the state’s anti-fraud crackdown, mounted in recent years under former Attorney General Brad Schimel and former Gov. Scott Walker, both Republicans, became so aggressive that it deterred at least some qualified applicants from seeking jobless claims because they feared an honest mistake could land them in trouble.
Schimel and Walker framed their efforts as holding criminals accountable for ripping off the state’s unemployment insurance safety net. The program provides temporary weekly benefits to people who lose their job through layoffs or other reasons not linked to employee fault.
Referrals of unemployment insurance fraud cases for criminal prosecution grew sharply in the second half of Walker’s eight-year tenure, state data show, even as the ranks of people filing jobless claims declined to record lows as the economy grew out of the Great Recession.
Most commonly, such fraud involves claimants concealing information from the state, such as hours worked, that would reduce their benefits. In most cases, the department works to collect jobless benefit over-payments — benefits that are clawed back from claimants if they later are deemed to have been ineligible for them — as well as surcharge penalties.
In a few more serious cases, the state Justice Department or county district attorneys may prosecute fraud cases referred to them by the Department of Workforce Development, which administers the state’s unemployment insurance program.
In a recent Wisconsin State Journal interview, Kaul said his approach to enforcing all criminal laws, including unemployment insurance fraud, is to focus on “prosecutions (that) are directly addressing significant criminal activity and have a general deterrent effect.”
“I think it’s important that we use our limited prosecutorial resources to focus on those more significant cases,” Kaul said.
Kaul added that it’s important for the department to look at unemployment insurance fraud whether it’s committed by an employee or employer. Evers recently announced formation of a new state task force on the latter issue, employee misclassification, in which employers violate the law by classifying employees as independent contractors to avoid paying taxes, including for unemployment insurance.
Some Republicans now fear Evers’ proposed changes to the unemployment insurance program, such as eliminating a one-week waiting period for benefits, could erode the recent push to crack down on fraud.
From 2015 to 2018, Workforce Development officials referred 402 fraud cases to prosecutors to bring criminal charges. That compares to 112 referrals the four previous years, from 2011 through 2014.
So far in 2019, since Evers took office, Workforce Development officials have referred only 10 cases for prosecution, according to data provided by the department.
Critics of the Walker crackdown say it was part of a resource-intensive war on some of the state’s poorest residents. They say state officials sometimes failed to differentiate between intentional fraud and honest mistakes by applicants navigating what has become an increasingly complex process to qualify and remain eligible for jobless benefits.
Madison attorney Victor Forberger, whose clients include unemployment insurance claimants facing fraud charges, said complex, multi-part survey questions frequently bewilder claimants. That can lead them to make mistakes in their answers that state officials later treat as fraud, he said.
“They’ve designed the system to make it harder for people to provide information, to trip people up,” Forberger said.
In a recent State Journal interview, Frostman said the department is eyeing changes to “streamline” its application process for jobless benefits, including by clarifying questions to applicants.
“We want to be sure folks who are eligible for the program feel like that they can navigate our system accurately and that they can feel confident that the questions are clearly asked,” Frostman said.
Former GOP state Rep. Joe Handrick, who led the department’s unemployment insurance division from 2014 until January, acknowledged what he described as a multi-pronged approach to crack down on fraud at the department during his tenure.
There was a legislative push by Walker and GOP lawmakers to enhance surcharge and criminal penalties for unemployment insurance fraud. Another law made it easier for state officials to substantiate fraud allegations by removing a requirement that the state had to prove a claimant had an intent or design to receive benefits to which they knew they were not entitled.
The approach also involved working more closely with prosecutors to identify and prosecute serious fraud cases, Handrick said, and adopting new, more advanced methods to detect fraud.
“The department has a lot more tools at its disposal now to catch fraud, mostly by employing technology,” Handrick said.
Handrick said he fears those efforts could lose momentum under a provision of Evers’ plan for the next state budget, which calls for eliminating a one-week waiting period before claimants can get jobless benefits. Handrick said the waiting period was crucial in enabling state officials to catch fraudulent applications.
Handrick also rejects claims that some people prosecuted for fraud only made mistakes, saying the department long has distinguished between intentional and inadvertent omissions by claimants that lead to benefit over-payments.
“The things that get assigned as fraud are where the person clearly and intentionally attempts to defraud the people of the state of Wisconsin,” Handrick said. “Only the worst of the worst get referred to district attorneys for prosecution.”
Ben Jedd, the current Workforce Development spokesman, also said prosecution referrals are reserved “for the worst offenders” — less than one-half of one percent of all cases the department investigated in the last decade.
Kaul’s Deputy Attorney General, Eric Wilson, told the state Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council last month that factors the department will consider in prosecuting cases include proving the claimant had an intent to defraud the state and whether they lied to investigators or obstructed the case. Another factor is whether the amount of benefits alleged to have been collected illegally justifies the expenditure of state resources to prosecute, Wilson said.
The rate of eligible workers filing for jobless claims has plummeted in Wisconsin in recent years, even in relation to the downward turn in unemployment rate. The last time the unemployment rate was nearly this low, in the late 1990s, nearly twice as many eligible workers were filing for unemployment, Federal Reserve data show.
Critics such as Forberger question if this is due to the state’s anti-fraud efforts, as well as other new requirements placed on claimants such as work searches.
Frostman said his office will continue to actively combat unemployment insurance fraud. When pressed, he would not comment on whether the department has changed or plans to change enforcement practices.
But Frostman acknowledged he has heard the state’s anti-fraud efforts created a disincentive for people “who certainly qualify for unemployment insurance” but fear being charged with a crime for a mistake. He said it’s unclear how widespread the concerns are.
“That has been a deterrent from people that are undeniably eligible for unemployment insurance due to losing a job through no fault of their own — that they decided not to even pursue it because of the ramifications that a mistake might carry,” Frostman said.