Metro-East News

Most agree Chain of Rocks Bridge needs to be replaced, but there’s no money right now

Illinois Department of Transportation has decided that the best route for a new Chain of Rocks Bridge is slightly south of the existing bridge.

During a public meeting Wednesday in Granite City, IDOT displayed maps of the five locations considered — one in the same location as the existing bridge, one slightly north, one farther north, one slightly south and one farther south.

“By going to the south, we’re able to build a new bridge while keeping traffic on the old one,” said Cindy Stafford, IDOT location studies engineer based in Collinsville. “And we’re keeping (a Missouri ramp) a sufficient distance from the Dunn Road intersection.”

About 80 people attended the open-house-style meeting at Southwestern Illinois College despite frigid temperatures and showed widespread support.

Comment-table discussion focused not on whether a new bridge should be built for Interstate 270 traffic over the Mississippi River between Madison County and north St. Louis, but on how the project could be paid for and sped up.

“I can’t believe anybody could possibly be against this,” said Aaron Boehmisch, 52, of Collinsville, a hazardous materials client-services representative. “It needs to be instituted for the economic development of the entire Southern Illinois region. You want Amazon? You need this bridge.”

Boehmisch said Interstate 270 is a major freight-hauling route that’s key to the transportation of goods, not only by truck but by air, rail and barge.

Safety concerns

Mitchell resident David Hammers voiced safety concerns about the existing bridge, built in 1966 for four lanes with no shoulders. IDOT reports an average 51,000 vehicles cross each day (up from 19,800 in 1975), many more than it was designed to handle.

“The existing bridge has got to go,” said Hammers, 72, a National Rifle Association training counselor and retired steelworker.

“It has been a death trap for years. It’s obsolete in design. It’s too narrow. Only two lanes in each direction, and narrow lanes at that. You can sit in the passenger seat and reach out and touch a semi trailer in the other lane. It’s that close. And there are no shoulders for people who need to get off after a wreck.”

Hammers worked as a Madison County Sheriff’s deputy in the late ’80s and early ’90s and remembers having to park his patrol car on the Illinois side and run to accidents in the middle of the bridge when traffic was backed up.

The existing Chain of Rocks Bridge is jointly owned by Illinois and Missouri, but Illinois is the lead agency. Wednesday’s meeting was part of a final public-comment period in the engineering study phase of the new bridge project. People can submit written comments through Jan. 31 at www.idot.illinois.gov/projects/i-270-over-the-mississippi-river.

Next comes the design phase, paid for by Illinois and Missouri. No money has been allocated for the estimated $225 million construction cost by either state or the federal government. That concerned some at the meeting.

“This isn’t definite,” said Rachel Lamont, who uses the bridge to commute from her home in Pontoon Beach to her St. Louis advertising job for an import company. “Nothing is set in stone.”

Lamont praised transportation officials for trying to get the ball rolling and planning for replacement before the old bridge is “falling apart.”

“I just wanted to see what progress they have made, what our taxpayer money is going to and how painful it’s going to be (during construction). We lived through the canal process, but it was nip and tuck with traffic being impeded. The congestion was a nightmare at times.”

For the birds

Granite City resident Dennis Hogan is OK with building a new bridge, but he attended the meeting to advocate for eagles and other birds that migrate south to Chouteau Island each winter.

If the bridge comes too far south, it could disrupt wildlife habitat, said Hogan, 66, a retired Dial Co. supervisor who watches birds from the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge.

“I’m concerned about lighting (on the new bridge),” he said. “The existing bridge is overkill. I’m hoping they can find some other lighting that could focus down on the deck of the bridge. The eagles and all the other birds are sleeping out there at night. Why not let them have a good night’s sleep?”

The new bridge would be much wider than the old one, with room for up to six lanes, plus shoulders. Plans call for similar construction with concrete piers and steel beams supporting a concrete deck.

Collinsville resident Robert Brennan, 62, is asking officials to create a less dangerous eastbound on-ramp in Missouri. He passes it coming home from his factory job in Bridgeton, Missouri.

“I’ve been driving over the bridge since 1973, and I’ve seen some close calls,” he said. “If the traffic is too heavy, there’s no place to go. Sometimes people just have to stop, and then they have to try to get on, and cars are going pretty fast.”

Stafford thought Wednesday’s meeting had a “good turnout,” considering the project wouldn’t involve many private landowners and therefore isn’t as controversial as some involving roadway construction.

“A lot of people see the need for this project,” she said. “They see that there’s a lot of traffic volume on the bridge and that causes congestion. And there are safety issues because of the lack of shoulders.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

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