St. Louis – Federal, state and local dignitaries gathered on the Eads Bridge in St. Louis Monday to ceremonially start construction on the new Mississippi River bridge.
Work on the $670 million span began in February, but a snowstorm canceled the groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for that month. When it's completed in 2014, the bridge will carry Interstate 70 traffic over the Mississippi River north of downtown. I-70 currently crosses the Poplar Street Bridge, which carries two other interstates as well.
"What an awesome day," said Missouri Department of Transportation director Pete Rahn. "This project is going to be a tremendous project for the entire region. It's been needed for many, many years."
Rahn is leaving the department at the end of the week. The bridge is one of the last major projects he helped secure.
Discussions about a new Mississippi River crossing began in 2001, but were delayed for years by bickering between Missouri and Illinois over the size of the bridge, tolls, and the funding commitments each side would make.
Belleville Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello received nearly uniform praise from fellow lawmakers for filling the role of negotiator. Costello also helped secure the $239 million in federal financing as a top Democrat on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee.
The past delays were understandable, Costello said. The Missouri Department of Transportation was focused on the Interstate 64 project.
"But today's a day of celebration," he said. "What we need to do is move forward. We got through all that, we're building a new Mississippi River bridge, we need to move on to other challenges."
Other speakers called the bridge an example of what the region can accomplish if it works together.
"In the job that I have there are no Democratic or Republican bridges or roads," said Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a former Republican Congressman from Peoria. "As we turn a shovel of dirt here today, what we are celebrating is a classic example of bipartisanship." LaHood proposed naming the bridge after Costello and Missouri Republican Kit Bond, who worked with Senate colleagues to secure some of the federal money.
Missouri Congressman William Lacy Clay remembered Costello approaching him on his first day in office to push a fellow Democrat to support the bridge.
Clay called the 2,200 jobs the bridge is expected to generate crucial to the region. But he also challenged officials with the Missouri and Illinois departments of Transportation to spread those jobs equally.
"MoDOT did an excellent job of workforce diversity on the Highway 40 project. Now we want to combine that effort with business development and inclusion of DBEs, WBEs, MBEs," Clay said
Officials at both transportation departments say they are shooting for 15 to 20 percent minority participation on the 30 projects that will make up the new bridge.
A group of congregations is pushing for 30 percent participation.