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McKinley's reopening, but other bridge on leaders' minds

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Visitors make their way across the McKinley Bridge after last Saturday's dedication ceremony. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt)

By Maria Hickey, KWMU

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kwmu/local-kwmu-651621.mp3

St. Louis, MO – The McKinley Bridge is expected to re-open some time next month. The 97-year old bridge between north St. Louis and Venice, Illinois was closed in 2001 because of safety concerns.

The reopening is a big deal to people in the Metro East like Kenneth Wilkinson who crosses the river each day from Granite City to work in St. Louis. "This should knock off about 15 minutes each way a day," Wilkinson said at a ceremony last weekend on the McKinley Bridge. "If I can save that kind of time and money each day."

That ceremony tried to focus on the McKinley Bridge, even though the span didn't actually open on the day of the festivities, but talk kept moving to another bridge that's still on the drawing board.

"Let's build another bridge, a little bit farther along, let's get that bridge built!" noted Madison County board chairman Alan Dunstan during the ceremony.

He's talking, of course, about the proposed Mississippi River Bridge. Illinois and Missouri first began discussing a new bridge in the early 1990s.

Congestion on existing downtown bridges was becoming a major concern. Now, more than 15 years later, the Poplar Street Bridge carries more than 120,000 cars and trucks each day. And, in the next 13 years, daily traffic is expected to increase nearly 25%, meaning more delays.

By contrast, when the McKinley Bridge opens next month, about 10,000 cars and trucks will cross daily. As proud as I-DOT officials are of the two-lane structure, district engineer Mary Lamie says another span is needed.

"It's going to help with some of the congestion," she said. "It's not going to help with some of the regional issues we have as far as safety and congestion that we're facing right now, and that's why we need this project and the new Mississippi River Bridge project."

The two states have struggled in recent years to find a way to pay for a new Mississippi River Bridge. The price tag soared to more than $1 billion for an eight-lane structure. Then, the two sides reached a stalemate when Missouri insisted on charging tolls and Illinois balked.

Since then, relations between the states seem to have warmed. On Saturday the head of I-DOT, Milton Sees, was able to joke around a bit as he emphasized that McKinley Bridge will no longer have tolls.

While no MO-DOT officials were present for the McKinley Bridge ceremony, the message had long since been received. Last spring Missouri relented and agreed to take tolls off the table. "It looks like whatever will be built will not be a toll structure," said MO-DOT spokesman Jeff Briggs. "There were just too many people opposed to that."

Officials from both MO-DOT and I-DOT say the latest plan calls for a scaled down $500 million bridge. Of that, $239 million have been pledged from federal sources; Illinois has pledged more than $200 million.

But now, that Illinois money is tied up in a capital budget bill in Springfield. State Representative Jay Hoffman told the crowd he's optimistic that funding for the bridge will pass.

"The governors of the state of Illinois and Missouri, when we pass that capital bill, I believe, will be able to announce a new Mississippi River bridge to serve Illinois and Missouri," Hoffman said, during the ceremony.

A few moments later officials each grabbed a pair of scissors and stood in a line before the TV cameras for the ribbon cutting - a scene they're hoping they can repeat in the not too distant future, a little bit to the south.

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