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New bridge is rising from the Mississippi

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon,  May 31, 2011 - Despite high river levels, progress is proceeding apace on the new span over the Mississippi River north of downtown.

"We're on schedule to open in early 2014," said Greg Horn, project director for the Missouri Department of Transportation. "We lost some days with the flood last spring and we lost a few days this year but we figured that in to begin with. Barring any more really bad floods, we should be right on time."

In fact, the final piece of the project on the Missouri side was awarded last month to Millstone Bangert Inc., which will construct the $21.8 million interchange that links Interstate 70 to the new span near Cass Avenue. A new Cass Avenue overpass is also being installed which is keeping the interstate's express lanes closed until July.

Horn said that although the project got approval from the federal government in 2001, major funding issues remained for years as planners struggled to put together a financially workable blueprint. The original $2 billon proposal for an eight-lane roadway proved too expensive, so other alternatives -- from collecting tolls to incorporating the nearby MLK bridge into the effort -- were examined. Eventually, officials settled on a $670 million, four-lane span that left enough room for another bridge next to it should future needs dictate one be built.

"That will only happen when two things happen: the traffic demand is there, which we expect to happen in 20 or 25 years, and the financing is available," Horn said.

Generous shoulder space also means the bridge can be restriped for three lanes each way, if need be.

The financial news has so far been good. Horn said the project is about $30 million under budget.

Once completed, the new structure, a cable-stayed span similar in design to the Alton bridge further north, will carry I-70 over the river providing at least some relief to the Poplar Street Bridge, which, Horn notes is one of only two in the nation that carry three interstates across it.

"The Poplar Street Bridge also wasn't built for the kind of traffic it has today," Horn said. "The ramps are too short. There is too much weaving distance."

Horn said it could decrease the Poplar's traffic by 12-14 percent and cut the MLK's traffic by half.

On the other bank of the river things are also proceeding well.

"We're a little more than 16 months into a 48-month project," said Jeff Church, project engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation. "Things are going pretty well. On the Illinois side, (the job is made up of) a total of 26 projects and we've already got 14 of them out there and being worked on. Eight are actually already complete so we are well on our way."

Four more are on schedule to be awarded this month.

The IDoT has a lot more work than its Missouri counterpart, which has a much shorter approach to the water's edge.

High water is less of a factor now since the teams are finished with work below the waterline. Both towers have risen above the river-based piers, which were sunk through 30 feet of water, dozens of feet of mud and silt and about 20 feet of bedrock.

"That's always the riskiest part because you never are sure what you are going to find down there," Horn said. "Those are all done. We're on the towers now, so we're above the water level."

Not that they are necessarily going up evenly.

"The Illinois tower is about two weeks ahead of the Missouri tower; and you can see if you drive by that it's about 8 or 10 feet taller," Church said.

At 1,500 feet, it is expected to be the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the nation.

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.