As local transportation leaders listed some of the major infrastructure needs of the region, state officials said areas need to have their projects ready to go when state money becomes available.
One of the top priorities, they said, is rebuilding the Merchants Bridge, north of Venice, which is a vital part of the rail system that serves the Midwest and beyond. But doing so will cost more than $200 million.
The Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois on Monday had a transportation discussion panel at Lindenwood University-Belleville with a State Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, who chairs the committee on transportation.
Sandoval encouraged those in attendance to have projects ready to go for if and when a capital bill is approved by the legislature as earmarks are no longer done in Springfield. Every project needs to be delineated in a capital bill with a price tag.
“If you’re not ready, it will move so fast if you’re not in the queue, if we’re not aware of your projects, if we’re not aware of your needs, you clearly will be left in the dust,” Sandoval said. “If it’s not in the queue, your (project) probably won’t get funded.”
Randy Blankenhorn, the Illinois Department of Transportation secretary, said it’s been a long time since revenue, such as the motor fuel tax, was increased for transportation infrastructure in Illinois. Blankenhorn said there’s a need to think of long-term transportation revenue streams.
“I’m a believer that users pay,” Blankenhorn said. “I think it’s the fairest way to fund transportation. Honestly I’m tired of funding transportation on gambling and cigarettes.”
He said there has been discussion about there’s an estimated $1 trillion in new money from the federal level, as there is a need for more infrastructure investment in the country.
“Where’s the money going to come from, I don’t know,” Blankenhorn said. “But I think it’s starting the conversation. … Our needs for infrastructure improvement in this country are huge. We can’t ignore them any longer. We can’t continue to put band aids on head wounds.”
Representatives from the freightway district, the Terminal Railroad Association, and MidAmerica Airport, spoke about the need for upgrading the Merchants Bridge, north of the McKinley Bridge; putting in new interchanges; replacing the Interstate 270 river bridge over the Mississippi River, and making other road improvements.
“Looking at the lists that you all had, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in this region alone in projects that need to be built,” Blankenhorn said. “That’s not going to fall off a tree for us. We have to find new ways to pay for it.”
Mike McCarthy, president of the Terminal Railroad Association, discussed the needed upgrades for the Merchants Bridge, which opened in 1890, to help move rail freight through the St. Louis area. Two trains cannot can go over the bridge at the same time, as use is restricted, and some trains have been diverted for weight issues.
The number of inspections that take place have doubled on the bridge.
The TRRA has fixed deck tresses, and an approach upgrade is taking place and is expected to be completed in the spring. A replacement of the main span is expected to cost $219 million.
“The general consensus among bridge engineers is that there will only be 10 years of serviceable life left at this level if no action is taken fairly soon,” McCarthy said
McCarthy said 30 percent of agricultural goods that moved through New Orleans to the international ports there goes through St. Louis; 10 years ago it was just 6 percent, McCarthy said.
Mary Lamie, director of the regional freightway district, said the Merchants Bridge is the No. 1 priority for money.
“That bridge has national impact on the nation’s freight rail system, it’s really critical we move forward with getting funding for that structure,” Lamie said.
Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port, said the port is the busiest inland port on Mississippi River and receives competition from private and public river terminals, but sometimes other states.
He said Missouri provides annual grants to its inland ports through legislative appropriations and there are employees dedicated to freight movement and barge transportation. Illinois has no grants specific to the river industry and no employees dedicated to river transportation, Wilmsmeyer said.
“It can be better when we all work together as a team. We all want the same thing, what is best for Illinois. We all have that common goal.”