"I've been waiting for this bridge my whole life," Mike Rietz said. "I didn't think I'd ever see it."
The Davenport resident stood on the new I-74 bridge Wednesday afternoon with his dog in a stroller, accompanied by thousands of spectators, each craning their necks to see the now-iconic arches up close. His thoughts were shared by many, that a bridge to replace the old connection between Bettendorf and Moline was a long time coming.
Now it's here, and the Quad-Cities is ready to step into a new chapter.
Rietz, 60, spent his childhood riding his bike on the old I-74 bridge, or the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge, dragging a wagon filled with scrap metal from Iowa to Illinois while cars drove by and laid on the horn.
He watched construction crews expand the bridge to incorporate it into the interstate highway system in the ’70s. Since 2017, he's also watched the creation of the new bridge, from relocating mussels to clearing out space in Bettendorf to actually breaking ground on the bridge itself. He's ready to cross the river on I-74 again, but a little safer this time.
At its most basic, completion of the new bridge means an easier way to get from one side of the Mississippi River to the other. Plenty of Quad-Cities residents recalled instances where the I-74 bridge served as more than a barrier than a bridge due to traffic caused by accidents, weather or construction.
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos recalled the first time she crossed the old bridge 36 years ago, white-knuckling her steering wheel as she crossed from Moline to Bettendorf.
As a former Bettendorf police officer and chief, Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn said dealing with crashes on the old bridge was a scary experience.
With four lanes on each span and full shoulders on each side, the new bridge is ready to handle over 100,000 cars a day. In comparison, the old bridge could take up to 48,000 vehicles a day, a much lower number than the around 80,000 it was actually seeing.
"(The new bridge) will be much safer, and everybody will have the reliability of what this presents," Ploehn said.
A multi-use path on the new bridge is unique to the area, connecting riverfront bike trails in Iowa and Illinois, and it seems like everyone can't wait for it. It's just another way to connect the Quad-Cities through one of its most-used features.
Rietz said he's excited to try it out, riding his bike and pushing his dog.
Beyond its utility, the new I-74 bridge serves as a symbol of a greater connection between Iowa and Illinois. Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati said it will help both sides of the river grow in commerce and quality of place.
"It goes without saying that an abundant spirit of collaboration and cooperation shaped this effort," Rayapati said.
Visit Quad Cities CEO Dave Harrell is a transplant to the area who was born in St. Louis, home of the Gateway Arch. The Quad-Cities now has its own arches, he said, an iconic landmark that can unite everyone.
"Whether it's St. Louis, which has its arch, whether it's San Francisco with the bridge, we now have something that certainly is just as good," Harrell said, "and that bragability factor is something that we're always going to drive home."
Looking ahead, the bridge and the land on each side of it will showcase the Quad-Cities as a destination spot. People will hopefully want to do more than just drive over it, but check out the communities it connects. For Quad-Citians, Rietz said everyone might have a chance to be a little more pleasant after rush hour.
"There will be a lot more people who aren't in a bad mood because they got stuck in traffic," Rietz said.
As for the old bridge, Ploehn said it will be taken down sometime in the spring. He won't miss the old bridge, he said, since he's excited for the new structure and how the Quad-Cities is moving forward.
Harrell said he'd miss the old bridge when it eventually comes down, since — despite the trials and tribulations it caused for the public — it was an integral part of the Quad-Cities for so long. However, that role belongs in the past.
"Certainly we want to recognize and honor the old bridge, but it's time for something new," Harrell said. "It's a new day, it's a new dawn, and we're heading in the right direction."
Photos: The building of the I-74 Bridge
Workers install a casing for pier 16, the last one North of the Mississippi River, for the new I-74 bridge in Bettendorf, Iowa Thursday Novemb…
Quad-City iron workers building new I-74 bridge.
Work continues around the anchors for the arches on the new Interstate 74 bridge Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Milling and painting of the westbound…
Four additional segments of arch for the new westbound Interstate 74 bridge are staged on barges at the construction site Thursday, Nov. 21, 2…
Installing sign standards on new Interstate 74 bridge Iowa bound.