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Aging Merchant's Bridge studied for possible replacement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 09, 2011 - WASHINGTON - The nearly 120-year-old Merchant's Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis is being scrutinized for possible rehabilitation or replacement to help relieve some of the rail traffic on the near-capacity MacArthur Bridge - and possibly allow for faster Amtrak train service into the city.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $13.5 million grant "to advance the design of a new bridge over the Mississippi River" that might replace the Merchant's Bridge, which was built in the 1890s to handle mainly St. Louis freight but also handles a limited number of Amtrak passenger trains. The bridge is about three miles north of the Eads Bridge.

The Merchant's Bridge study grant was bundled by the DOT with an announcement about $2 billion in "high-speed rail awards" that also included $268.2 million to buy 48 high-performance passenger rail cars and 7 quick-acceleration locomotives for the St. Louis to Chicago high-speed rail corridor as well as 7 other Midwest corridors.

Another grant, announced last week will provide an additional $186 million to help pay for track and other improvements between Dwight and Joliet, Ill. on St. Louis-Chicago corridor.

The DOT announcement related the Merchant's Bridge study to the St. Louis-Chicago fast train corridor, although it was unclear Monday exactly what the relationship would be. Current plans call for the high-speed portion of the corridor to end at Alton, with lower-speed trains connecting to St. Louis itself. At present, about 1 in 10 Amtrak trains stopping in St. Louis use the Merchant's Bridge; the rest use the MacArthur Bridge.

The Merchant's Bridge is owned by the the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, which owns the rail bridges crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis. A joint application made in March by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and the Terminal Railroad requested federal funding to help "replace the Merchant's Bridge on the existing St. Louis to Chicago Amtrak corridor."

Calling the Merchant's Bridge "an alternate route" for Amtrak trains, the application adds: "The overall plan for Chicago to St. Louis Amtrak routes, however, show this [Merchant's] bridge to be more of an equalizer in terms of total traffic expected, in that when train speeds increase and more [Amtrak] frequencies are eventually added, this project will benefit more and more of the Amtrak traffic on this corridor."

At present, the Merchant's Bridge can only handle one train at a time, for a total of about 25 trains a day. Passenger trains using the bridge can travel only at low speeds of between 15 and 20 mph. The newer MacArthur Bridge, which is nearing its capacity, handles about 45 trains a day at somewhat faster speeds.

Jonathan G. Carnes, president of the Terminal Railroad Association, told the Beacon that he was not yet sure exactly how MoDOT and the association would use the $13.5 million federal grant. "We don't know yet," he said Monday, adding that the Merchant's Bridge "is the most efficient route between Alton and St. Louis," if the bridge could handle more traffic at greater speeds.

According to the original grant proposal, which sought considerably more in federal funds, Terminal would contribute about 40 percent of the costs of improvements to the bridge, with the rest coming from state and federal sources. The application said that "train traffic capacity will be increased with this project in several ways" - with a better bridge structure eliminating "the current restrictions on most heavy loads and allow[ing] concurrent passage of two trains equipped with six-axle locomotives."

D.J. Wilson, a spokesman for the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, told the Beacon that the council was aware of the Merchant's Bridge proposal but had not yet become actively involved with the plan.

"Our impression is that rehabbing or replacing the Merchant's Bridge would free up the MacArthur Bridge for more traffic," Wilson said. That, in turn, might allow faster train service into St. Louis from Illinois - which would be especially important for passenger trains.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.