Proposed new bridge construction over the Mississippi River at St. Louis has caused controversy between Missouri and Illinois for approximately 20 years.
Both states had talked about finding a solution for building another bridge to handle the traffic that hits 120,000 vehicles a day on the Poplar Street Bridge. Recently, a high-level Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) official met with Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) head Pete Rahn to discuss the I55/70 connector between the two states.
The goal was to have a compromise to the stalemate that is keeping traffic across the river moving at a snail’s pace but funding had been a major obstacle.
Illinois said it has money to fund its portion but Missouri indicated it does not.
As counter proposal, Missouri suggested a toll bridge that would be operated by an independent company. Illinois rejected this proposal because the tolls would penalize residents of “Metro-East,” the counties in Illinois to the east who work in downtown St. Louis and commute across the river daily.
With the issue stalemated and estimated costs rising — originally, the project was $1.6 billion but grew with inflation and design changes to more than $2 billion and rising. Illinois came up with an alternate, less expensive plan that would build a “coupler” adjacent to the Martin Luther King Bridge in downtown St. Louis.
Illinois’s plan of using couplers included a new four-lane structure north of the existing King bridge that would carry westbound traffic into Missouri. The existing Martin Luther King bridge would have to be reconfigured to have three 12-ft. (3.65 m) wide lanes to carry eastbound traffic into Illinois.
“The coupler seemed to be the most attractive as for cost and efficiency of moving traffic,” Mike Pritchett, IDOT’s project engineer, said.
Pritchett indicated that having only three lanes into Illinois would ease the problem for at least a few years.
“We would like four lanes each way but the most you can get is three if you want full width lanes,” he said. “We’re trying to take advantage of the existing structure to reduce cost. It would still provide significant congestion relief for the area.”
However, MoDOT officials said the coupler would not provide enough new lanes for long-term growth and still rejected Illinois’ plan of couplers at $35 million, which equaled Missouri’s portion of federal funds earmarked for the project.
Several Missouri officials, including County Executive Charlie Dooley, indicated that may be too good a deal to pass up. Dooley wrote a letter to IDOT detailing four specific issues he had with the plan, and Mike Claffey, an IDOT spokesman, said Illinois was preparing a response in hopes of satisfying Dooley.
Recently, the Illinois Department of Transportation brought its plan to the East-West Gateway Council, a body of 24 officials who decide on local transportation projects. The board voted in favor of the plan by a vote of 12 to 10. The 12 pro-votes were from Illinois; those against were from Missouri. Two Missouri members were absent.
Missouri announced it received an unsolicited proposal from a San Antonio company to build a toll bridge across the Mississippi at no cost to either state.
Illinois continued to oppose any plan for a toll bridge.
Rahn was unimpressed by the vote.
“I don’t see that the vote resolved anything,” he said. “It just clearly demonstrated the division between the two states’ views on how to solve this need. I don’t see that the vote moves this forward at all.”
Neither proposals indicated a cost increase.
“That’s not accurate because it’s saying East West Gateway will put up the money,” Rahn said. “East-West Gateway doesn’t have money of its own. This is still MoDOT’s money.”
Rahn called the proposal a bit of shell game because it take money away from other projects in Missouri.
“This is not a free bridge to Missouri,” Rahn said. “It’s MoDOT money that we cooperatively program with East-West Gateway within its region. It’s going to come from other counties within the East-West Gateway area.”
And Missouri won’t back a plan that doesn’t address long-term needs, he said.
“It was pretty clear by that vote that the 10 representatives from Missouri did not perceive this to be either a free bridge or a bridge that solve the long-term needs of the region,” he said.
Rahn later announced a proposal by Zachry-American, the Texas company to build a toll bridge. The company would charge a $3 toll for vehicles to use the bridge.
“We believe it’s a way to find the infrastructure that’s needed for the long-term growth of the St. Louis region,” he said of the concept.
“What I think is significant about their proposal is it demonstrated that a private/public partnership solution to the bridge is available, which is contrary to East-West Gateway’s study in which they said it couldn’t work Here we have a proposal from a consortium that says they’re willing to do it. To me it’s a great starting point for a privately financed private/public partnership.”
Rahn said more companies would submit proposals if an official request for proposals is issued.
“There’s not a formal RFP out there,” he said. “Without an agreement with Illinois it wouldn’t have served any purpose.”
Rahn said he’s hopeful a solution will be reached that is agreeable to both sides.
“We have not made much progress in the last year although I consider the fact that we’ve received an unsolicited proposal as a step in a direction that show it’s a viable solution as a means to build a bridge,” he said. “At least we know that’s an option if the two states were to agree to it.
“I think Missouri is pretty solidly behind the concept of the larger bridge if that’s what the long-term needs are of the region and that the use of the tolls is a progressive way to pay for infrastructure. Illinois would have to be part of it. It cannot go forward without an agreement.”
Les Sterman, executive director of East-West Gateway, found the voting fell as might be expected.
“It was a contested vote, split along state lines,” Sterman said. “Nonetheless it is an official act of East-West Gateway and it does commit us to certain things should the project come about. Three parties — Illinois, Missouri and the East-West Gateway Council — must agree.”
Sterman said two out of the three are now in agreement on the record.
The next step was for Illinois to move forward on the plan with the hope of pulling Missouri over to its side.
“I think it’s really up to the state of Illinois to turn what’s essentially an advanced concept plan — and we think it’s a very credible one — into a real design,” he said. “I think they’re going to be doing that over the coming months. If Missouri doesn’t agree, obviously that would be a problem.”
But, Sterman said the Missouri members of the board did not object to the King Bridge alternative but were asking for more information on it, and they wanted to give the states more time to pursue various options.
“It’s an attractive plan that doesn’t really require a financial commitment from the state of Missouri,” Sterman said. “Missouri would be hard pressed to continue to resist but they could. Their concern was that by acting in advance of the two states reaching an agreement their actions might not be very meaningful. They felt more information was needed and more pressure should be put on the state to come to an agreement as opposed to our taking action. It was more a question of strategy rather than the substance of the proposal.”
Sterman stated that he knew Rahn opposed the plan.
“If Illinois is able to turn this concept into a real project to me the objections I’ve heard from MoDOT are partly substantive and if they can be addressed by IDOT I’m not sure why MoDOT would continue to resist,” Sterman said.
Meanwhile, Claffey said IDOT’s acting secretary Milt Sees seeks a meeting with Rahn to bridge the two states’ positions.
And all the while, bi-state motorists struggle with bridge congestion when they cross the river.
Over the past 20 years, a lot of money had been spent on engineering and design as options have been studied, Pritchett said.
“We just want to move forward with something that we can deliver to the drivers of this area as quickly as possible so they have some congestion relief even if it may not be the extremely long-term relief that would come from a new eight-lane bridge. It would still provide relief for the short term,” Pritchett said. “We feel the situation is becoming so critical that we can’t continue to keep delaying on this. We need to move quickly. Even if we start the coupler, it would not be open for probably seven years. No matter what you do, your time period to get through all the approvals and design effort and everything you have to do to build any bridge still puts us quite a ways off in the future.”
If the two states can agree, the coupler could be a reality in 2014.
“As the clock ticks, that date gets pushed off,” Pritchett said. “If it’s another six months before we come to an agreement, that just pushes that timeline off into the future.”