Highly-Anticipated Cape Girardeau, MO, Bridge Opens

Mon December 15, 2003 - National Edition

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (AP) For some, the trip between Missouri and Illinois on the old Mississippi River bridge here was frightening.

After spending $100 million on the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, officials hope the trip will be much calmer –– and more frequent.

The new bridge opened Saturday after seven years of construction, with thousands of people taking what may be their only opportunity to walk across the steel and concrete structure

The opening came despite chilly weather and a few flurries, after forecasters had called for up to 4 in. of snow.

"It could have been pouring rain, a cyclone could have been coming through, but I wouldn’t have missed this," Adell Hartle, who was among those walking on the bridge, told the Southeast Missourian newspaper. "It’s just a great moment.’

A similar ceremony opening a Missouri River bridge and 8-mi. road extension connecting St. Louis and St. Charles counties was also held Saturday, but officials kept traffic from crossing the bridge until Sunday because of snowfall.

The Cape Girardeau celebration featured songs and speeches in tribute to the late U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson, who fought for the bridge’s funding in Congress. The bridge is expected to provide an improved corridor for 14,000 vehicles each day traveling between the states. Missouri Department of Transportation district engineer Scott Meyer expects that number to double by 2015.

The bridge is a lifeline for people like Mike McCrite, who live in southern Illinois but work or shop in Cape Girardeau, the largest Mississippi River city in southeast Missouri or southern Illinois.

"This is something else," said McCrite, of Olive Branch, IL, as he looked up at the towering piers. ”To think how much thought went into it before a drop of concrete was even poured.’

McCrite recalled the story of a high-school student who got so scared crossing the old, bumpy bridge that she stopped in the middle. That bridge closed forever around 2 p.m. Saturday.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who won her late husband’s seat in Congress and is now in her fourth term, spoke at the dedication. Bill Emerson died of lung cancer months before construction began in September 1996.

"My late husband, Bill Emerson, built bridges of a different kind," she said. "He connected good ideas with the people who could make them work. He inspired his constituents and colleagues. He put Americans in touch with the inner resources they needed to fulfill their potential."

Emerson’s daughters, Katherine Emerson, Tori Emerson Barnes, Liz Leger and Abby Gilhooley, also attended the ceremony.

"To actually see it, to step foot on it, it puts everything into a place where we can have some closure and know that his name will go on forever," Barnes said.

Officials near St. Louis dedicated the Veterans Memorial Bridge, which connects an extended Page Avenue to a blossoming St. Charles County. The bridge’s 10 lanes are expected to carry an immediate load of approximately 60,000 cars a day, but double that within the next two decades.

U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-MO, touted the bridge for creating jobs and economic growth by alleviating congestion on Interstate 70, U.S. Highway 40, and Missouri Route 370 and helping businesses get their products to market.