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Increasing wear, decreasing funding mark St. Louis' aging infrastructure

From left to right, Andrew Weil, Lance LeComb, Bill Schnell, and David Lott.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

The collapse of the 155-year-old Cutlery Factory building on Laclede’s Landing last week may have been a freak event, but along with the two-year closure forecast for rebuilding the Kingshighway bridge, it has raised legitimate questions about the sustainability and strength of St. Louis infrastructure.

On Wednesday, “St. Louis on the Air” examined the state of the region’s infrastructure and how it may be improved. The show asked architects, engineers, and representatives of city and state agencies: What is the general lifespan of a road, a bridge, a building? How can that lifespan be extended? What is the funding situation, and how much do repairs cost? And when does it make more sense to rebuild rather than preserve?

“In Missouri, we have 10,000 bridges and 30,000 miles of road, and they’re continually needing work,” said Bill Schnell, assistant district engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Most of the highway system was built in the 1950s-60s, Schnell said. Bridges are typically meant to last about 75 years, and many in St. Louis are nearing the end of their run.

Loads are heavier now, and drivers’ needs are different. High car usage and the advent of semi-trucks put stress on roads that had not been planned to take it. The addition of bike and pedestrian lanes involves further unplanned alteration. And many of those changes must be paid for locally.

“We actually have less revenue today than we did 20 years ago,” Schnell said. “Funding transportation on a gas tax, which worked for generations—today, it’s not a sustainable thing.” Cars using more efficient fuels, electric vehicles, and alternative transportation all increase wear on roadways without funding their eventual repair.

Ultimately, Schnell said, the mechanisms of funding these long-term investments are dependent on legislation, not administration. “It’s MoDOT’s job to figure out what the transportation needs are and how much those cost. It’s really up to the legislature and the people to figure out how to pay for it.”

Underground systems are even older than St. Louis’ old roads, said Lance LeComb, manager of public information with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District. Parts of the city’s sewer system date back to the 19th century and are made of wood. They still work properly, LeComb assured, but require upkeep, a close eye, and a public understanding that there is a city beneath the city—that infrastructure does not end with roads and bridges.

Like area roads, many sewer systems “were built decades or a century ago, or at least planned out, and the modern demand on them, the modern usage, is much different than was ever intended,” LeComb said.

St. Louis is lucky, despite the questionable state of some roads, to be made of durable material, said architect David Lott and Andrew Weil, executive director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Brick is meant to last for hundreds of years—and does, and has. When brick buildings fail, it is because they have not been preserved correctly.

Bricks take in water, Lott explained, and mortar lets it out. When mortar disintegrates, the wall cannot exude the water it holds. “Around North St. Louis where you see significant decay, where you see roofs with holes in them, windows are missing—this is where water has a chance to get in the walls.”

Even some of the most blighted buildings may be salvageable, however. Weil said that buildings can only justifiably be demolished if the cost of repair is simply too high; plenty of old buildings are still capable of serving many uses.

“I don’t think the argument for preservation is really ever intended to be an argument against new buildings or new construction,” Weil noted. But it is a question of balance: knowing what older construction can still be preserved and used and which buildings are past hope. Those structures’ status often depends on private property owners, who must use their own money to redevelop and preserve—unlike collective funding of transportation infrastructure.

In all cases, LeComb said, “It’s about reinvesting in our system, having a plan in place.” For St. Louis, it seems the plans are there—it’s the investment that’s the problem.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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