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Officials celebrate start of roadwork for Arch grounds overhaul

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2013: With two Cabinet secretaries in tow, regional leaders took their ceremonial shovels and broke ground to celebrate the beginning of roadwork construction, the first step in redoing the Gateway Arch's grounds.

Federal, state and local officials – including Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Transpiration Secretary Anthony Foxx – were on hand Friday downtown to kick off road construction for the $380 million CityArchRiver project. The initiative is aimed at sprucing up the Arch grounds in time for the monument's 50th anniversary on Oct. 28, 2015.

The wide-ranging improvements include an expansion of the underground museum and a new west entrance; landscaping; a revitalized riverfront; and development of accessible walkways to the riverfront and expanded programming and amenities on the grounds.

It's a project, Foxx said, that celebrates "America’s relentless, pioneering spirit."

"There are advantages to this project," Foxx said. "It reduces congestion. It improves access. It helps our pedestrians and cyclists and drivers alike move more safely. And at the same time, it’s also going to generate economic growth along the river."

Ed Hassinger, the chief engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said his agency would be doing preliminary work this year – including altering exit ramps and working on roads at the north end of the park.

Much of this year's work will prepare for “heavy” construction in 2014, which includes building the so-called “Park over the Highway." That's the moniker for "the lid" that will extend over Interstate 70 between Chestnut and Market streets.

“We’re getting prepared for 2014, when all the real heavy work goes in,” said Hassinger, referring to this year’s work. “And that’s when you’re really going to see things start flying down here.”

Both Foxx and U.S. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the park would go a long way toward ensuring easier access to the monument, which has been a long-standing goal of local political and business leaders.

“We are not going to have to dodge traffic getting to the Arch," McCaskill said. "We’re not going to have to explain to visitors that ‘no, there really isn’t an easy way to access the river.’ We are going to have something that will make all of us to continue to burst with pride for so many generations to come.”

About $47 million of federal and state funds went toward that aspect of the project, along with $10 million of private donations from the CityArchRiver 2015Foundation.  And, McCaskill noted, that the initial federal investment was a catalyst for broader public and private investments.

“What I’m most proud of are people in this region that recognized not too long ago that government is not the enemy,” McCaskill said. “Yep, it’s not the answer. But it’s not the enemy. And they recognized in this instance, government can be a positive partner unleashing private capital, unleashing local and state investment, unleashing a sense of togetherness in this region.”

Gearing up

The park over the highway is a major aspect of the the CityArchRiver project, which also includes an expanded museum, a host of landscaping and accessibility improvements, and an overhaul of Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard.

While some money comes from government, most is supposed to come from the private sector. Private funds, among other things, are slated to go toward the museum's renovation and new landscaping.

Earlier this year, Walter Metcalfe – a Bryan Cave attorney and the chairman of the CityArchRiver 2015 foundation – said his group would cast a wide net to raise $250 million in private funds for the project. Of that, $221 million would pay for capital costs and the remaining $29 million would endow a conservancy. On Friday, Metcalfe said his organization was on pace to have $130 million in private funding in place by Sept. 30.

“It’s a back and forth with the park service on a lot of partnership agreements and fundraising agreements,” Metcalfe said. “So we can’t go public with our ask until we’ve solved all of those issues.”

Jewell said private-sector involvement in the project has been “incredibly impressive,” adding that it’s getting notice in Washington, D.C.

“It’s something that other communities are going to emulate,” Jewell said. “You’re also doing something in a very smart way. And it’s obvious. As a business person for over 35 years and a public servant for 113 days, you’re driving the economy of St. Louis with this work.”

Foxx added that the project is a source of "national pride."

"Everyone knows that when you’re in St. Louis, you have to see the Arch. And that’s why it’s important for residents and tourists alike – they can enjoy the riverfront safely and with ease. And this project reminds us of something even more important. That when we come together, great things can happen. We can build roads and bridges and bike paths that improve quality of life." 

First of its kind

In addition to federal, state and private funds, the CityArchRiver project will also receive money from a 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax increase that voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County approved earlier this year.

The above video shows Foxx, Jewell and McCaskill speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony.

The tax hike is expected to raise roughly $31 million a year for Arch grounds, the regional Great Rivers Greenway trails and greenways, and for city and county parks. About $9.4 million a year will be dedicated to improvements around the Arch grounds, funds that will be administered by Great Rivers Greenway. A Department of Revenue official told the Beacon earlier this year that the start date for the tax’s collection is Oct. 1.

A spokesman for the National Parks Service told the Beacon earlier that he could find no other example of a local tax to fund improvements at a federal monument. It was a designation that McCaskill highlighted in her remarks.

She went onto say that “never again will I look at that Arch and just think how cool it is." Rather, she said "I’m just going to think how it symbolizes this community and how we are willing to give more and do better to improve our community."

“There is not another place in the country that has done this like we have done this,” she said. “There has not ever been a community that has taxed itself to support a federal park. And there is only one other place that you have seen the kind of public-private partnership that we have here in St. Louis. And that’s Ellis Island. So I’ll put my Arch against the Statute of Liberty any day.”

Metcalfe added that the “physical connections are the easy part – we’ve got to make people believe that this is their park.”

“A park is an idea,” Metcalfe said. “This is about discovery and courage and pioneering and innovation. Let’s bring that to St. Louis in spades.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.