Ill., Mo. unveil long-awaited accord on new Mississippi River bridge

Thursday, February 28, 2008

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Missouri and Illinois ended years of bickering Thursday over how to pay for a new Mississippi River bridge and at what cost, announcing a deal for a new four-lane, $640 million span meant to ease congestion at one of the nation's busiest crossings.

The bridge, scheduled to be open by 2015, would have two lanes in each direction as the fifth span between St. Louis to its Illinois suburbs, siphoning Interstate 70 traffic from the 45-year-old Poplar Street Bridge that's prone to bottlenecking.

The bridge would be toll free -- a concession by Missouri, which in recent years had insisted that motorists pay for using the span. Illinois had labeled any call for tolls a deal-breaker, casting it as a burden on the tens of thousands of Illinoisans who commute each day to work in St. Louis and its Missouri suburbs.

The plan also allows for the bridge to be expanded by a lane each way, if needed.

Missouri would pick up about $88 million of the tab and cover any cost overruns. Illinois would contribute $313 million, with the federal government pitching in $239 million.

The governors of both states told reporters Thursday the bridge will benefit their residents. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said the bridge is "the right thing to do" to ease the burden on commuters. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt said the new span will "help tie these two states together."

The announcement was a colossal breakthrough for both states, which for more than a decade had agreed that a new bridge was needed. But differences about the scope of the project and how to pay for it stagnated the effort that consistently got downsized as traffic across the river here continued to mushroom.

Just a few years ago, the new bridge was drawn up to be eight lanes and cost $1.6 million as what officials said would become a "signature bridge" and possible tourist draw near St. Louis' towering Gateway Arch. That would-be span even had a proposed name -- the Ronald Wilson Reagan Memorial Bridge.

The price tag for a new eight-lane span eventually was scaled back to $910 million but still went nowhere as both states haggled about how to pay for it. The project later was downsized to $410 million to $450 million -- what officials said it would cost to add a "coupler" bridge of four westbound lanes parallel to the existing Martin Luther King Bridge, which would be renovated to only carry three eastbound lanes.

Both of those projects would have rerouted I-70 from the congested Poplar Street span -- used by more than 120,000 vehicles daily -- and carry the traffic north of downtown St. Louis.

While car traffic has grown, capacity across the river has dwindled from 22 lanes in the 1960s to about 16 now. By 2020, the St. Louis Chamber and Growth Association has predicted that rush-hour travel time in the area could double to three hours from 90 minutes now.

On the Net:

Illinois Department of Transportation,

Missouri Department of Transportation,

Mississippi River Bridge Project,

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