For the last four years, people who traveled through St. Louis watched the new Mississippi River bridge rise above the water just north of downtown.
But the work to get the span, now officially named the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, built actually started about 30 years ago.
Former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, said the first thoughts about building a new bridge came in the early 1980s when he was the chairman of both the St. Clair County Board and the East-West Gateway Council.
"I appointed a committee to look at bridges, to determine the condition they were in and what needed to be done," Costello said. "We knew the Martin Luther King Bridge had to be repaired and that the McKinley Bridge had a number of issues to be addressed. They came back and reported the condition of the bridges and, at that time, said there was a need for a knew bridge."
The Regional Commerce and Growth Association and the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois deemed the new bridge to be the No. 1 area public works project, Costello said.
And the push to get the money to build it began.
Despite the need for a bridge that was apparent to local leaders, it was still only a dream because they had no idea where they were going to come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary. But before the end of the decade Costello was elected to Congress, where he would stay for the next 25 years, and the bridge project had a champion in Washington, D.C.
"I went to Congress in 1988 and we started pushing for a new bridge," Costello said. "We ended up convincing the leadership in the Congress that we needed to put a provision in the (transportation) bill for projects of national significance, beneficial not just to the region but to the nation.
"And the reason we were able to get Congress to put it in as an earmark is because the new bridge would take traffic off the Poplar Street Bridge, which carries traffic coast to coast. It was going to benefit commerce nationwide."
A $239 million earmark for the bridge was included in a six-year transportation bill passed in the early 1990s. It was up to Illinois and Missouri to determine how to come up with the rest that would be needed.
Randy Hitt, manager of the new bridge project for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said that's when things got serious and leaders from Illinois and Missouri got together to discuss what the bridge should look like.
"Looking at the big picture, plans started to be talked about in roughly 1990," Hitt said. "The bridges we had were over capacity. There was no redundancy. Different things evolved. At one point the location was decided but the size and scope were something to be agreed upon. At one point the proposal was that it was going to be four lanes in each direction."
With the price tag nearing $2 billion, Hitt said neither state could afford that project. While leaders agreed a new bridge was needed, that's about all they could agree on. They bickered over how many lanes it should have, how much to spend, who would pay for it, and where they'd get the money.
Things had been at a standstill since 2005 when Missouri leaders decided that a toll bridge should be built. Illinois leaders were upset about that idea since it would seemingly put the bulk of the burden on Illinois commuters who traveled to St. Louis daily for their jobs. About 80 percent of commuter traffic on the bridge was made up of people who live in Illinois and work in Missouri, according to studies done at the time.
Costello said he began to wonder whether the project would ever become a reality.
"There was a time that we became very frustrated," Costello said. "Missouri insisted that they wanted the $2 billion bridge. We told them we'd like to have that, too, but they were going to have to bring their checkbook. That's when we were finally able to agree to scale it back some."
The much-needed bridge was nearly lost in 2007 when the political squabbling jeopardized the $239 million in federal funding approved for the project.
Missouri leaders scaled their plans back to a six-lane bridge that would cost $1 billion. Illinois leaders responded with a plan to build a more modest four-lane bridge with a coupler that would better use the available lanes on the Martin Luther King Bridge. The price was $550 million.
Other skirmishes bubbled up. For a brief time, leaders disagreed on whether the new bridge should replace the eastbound exit to downtown off Interstate 70.
It wasn't until Costello, who sat on the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, warned that the federal government was getting tired of the disagreements and that its commitment of nearly a quarter billion dollars would be lost if problems couldn't be worked out soon.
While current U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and his former junior counterpart, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., worked to preserve federal funding, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., publicly took leaders of her state to task.
"There has been some stubbornness, I think in fairness to Illinois, some stubbornness on the Missouri side of the line," McCaskill said in March 2007. She added she was "disappointed at the lack of leadership that has occurred on the Missouri side of the line to find the solution to this standoff we have."
Apparently the warnings were taken seriously because less than a month later plans had firmed up significantly on the size and location of the bridge. The funding was agreed upon by the governors of Illinois and Missouri in 2008.
Work quickly began on design. The construction was divided into 37 projects. Missouri took the lead in building the main span while Illinois concentrated on building a new approach highway, which would eventually be named in honor of Costello, and an interchange to connect it to Interstates 44, 55, 64 and 70.
After one of the largest archeology digs in Illinois history that ensured the new highway wouldn't permanently bury historic artifacts, construction finally began in February 2010. The bridge is expected to cost about $695 million when all the bills are paid. That's about $14 million less than projected once plans were finalized. It will be four lanes instead of six or eight. But Costello said it has wide shoulders that are designed to make it expandable in the future.
The bridge will be open Saturday to pedestrians and bicyclists for its ceremonial opening, according to Illinois Department of Transportation project engineer Jeff Church. It will close at 4 p.m. so workers can take down construction signs and barricades in time for its opening to car traffic at noon Sunday.
Costello said it is amazing to see a bridge that was conceived more than 30 years ago finally become a reality. He lists it as the second-most significant accomplishment of his legislative career.
It's going to be cold (Saturday when the bridge is dedicated)," Costello said. "But I have been waiting for this project for a long time and I can't wait. It's a great day for the region. I'm very proud that we have been able to accomplish what we have accomplished.
"I have given this speech I don't know how many times, but it still is true: For every billion you spend, you create 32,000 good-paying jobs and create $6 billion of economic activity, Costello said. "This bridge will be there for the public and the region for 100 years or more. It's a great investment."
The only thing he's prouder of is the effort to save Scott Air Force Base.
"Scott Air Force Base was always my No. 1 priority," Costello said. "A lot of people don't believe it was in danger of closing. But I was very involved in the last two Base Realignment and Closure Commissions and I can tell you it came very close, down to the last minute."
Activity at the base has increased by 40 percent over the past decade, he said.
Costello said while he believes that bridges and highways shouldn't be named after individuals, he was touched it was decided to name the Illinois approach after him.
"I never wanted them to name it after me," Costello said. "But I know it means a lot to my family, so it means a lot to me."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 239-2626.
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