Metro-East News

Merchants Bridge getting renovation despite being turned down for federal funds

The reconstruction of Merchants Bridge will go forward without federal grants, funded by the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.

The bridge was built in 1889 and is the oldest rail structure over the Mississippi River. It needs a $172 million reconstruction of the three main spans and the east approach that carries passenger and freight rail traffic from Venice over to St. Louis.

Construction on the bridge replacement is expected to begin in the fall of this year and take four years to complete, said Asim Raza, the chief legal officer for the Terminal Railroad Association.

Raza said the railroad association decided to finance the project on its own without federal funding because of the impact on the national freight network and passenger travel.

“It was on its way to being obsolete,” Raza said. “It was too risky to delay it.”

TRRA President Mike McCarthy called the 128-year-old bridge a “critical link in our rail network.”

“We began work on this important project in 2013 and look forward to its completion in four years,” McCarthy said. “Modernizing this structure results in benefits for the general railroad network, shippers and the general public.”

TRRA had applied for a federal grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation, but learned earlier this month that no grant would be offered. TRRA has decided to proceed with the four-year project anyway, and awarded the contract to Walsh Construction.

The bridge is expected to remain open for most of the project, but 5-hour daily outages are planned and the traffic will be diverted to the MacArthur Bridge, Raza said. The two-track bridge isn’t wide enough for multiple trains to move through at the same time, so only one track is used at a time, Raza said.

During the project, the railroad association does plan to have three 10-day full closures of the bridge as it replaces parts of the span. Specific dates have not been set.

The bridge carries both freight and passenger traffic.

St. Louis Regional Freightway executive director Mary Lamie praised the TRRA decision.

“We applaud TRRA and its shareholders for making the difficult decision to fund the Merchants Bridge replacement without federal grant assistance, recognizing that this critical bridge will go out of service in less than 10 years without action,” Lamie said in a statement. “An out-of-service Merchants Bridge would adversely impact transportation costs to all modes of transportation as well as the St. Louis region’s ability to compete in the global market.”

The project is expected to support 1,100 jobs in the region, including 150 direct jobs, and to generate $456 million in local economic activity over the next 20 years.

TRRA is financing the project through Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “This is an infrastructure project with national importance, and we are enthusiastic about its positive impact on local economic development and job creation,” said John Beardslee, global commercial banking market executive. “Along with many others in the St. Louis region, we look forward to watching the improved Merchants Bridge take shape.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald
Reporter Joe Bustos contributed to this story.
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