How many bridges cross the Mississippi River between Alton and Columbia? Eleven. If you are good, you can name nine of them. If really good, then 10. But unless you are a real transit or train buff you likely missed the Merchants Bridge, which is just north of the McKinley Bridge.
Here’s why you should care about the bridge you might not even know exists.
It was built in 1890. It carries 40 million gross tons a year, serving Amtrak and all six Class I railroads in St. Louis as well as the barge and intermodal facilities at America’s Central Port. Only three of the 23 railroad bridges crossing the Mississippi are not controlled by a single railroad, and two of those are in St. Louis — the Merchants and MacArthur bridges. Combined, they make our region the nation’s second-largest freight rail interchange.
But in 10 years the 127-year-old bridge will need to be closed. It is already restricted to one train at a time crossing at 5 mph on its double tracks, and none of the cars can be too heavy.
The Terminal Railroad Association owns the bridge and hopes it can put $219 million into the main spans. It plans about $44 million of its own money up front, is seeking a $75 million federal grant and a $100 million federal loan for the construction.
Association President Mike McCarthy told a local transit summit this week that spending those tax dollars on the bridge means that over the next 20 years taxpayers will save $63 million in road damage as well as save $216 million in emissions damage by putting the freight on trains rather than trucks. But those are not really the big reasons that the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois names the bridge replacement as the region’s No. 1 priority
A decade ago, six percent of the New Orleans port’s international freight originated in St. Louis. Now it is up to 30 percent. There is potential for 30 percent growth.
That is jobs, but the freight business here is based on the six railroads, four interstate freight corridors, confluence of four major rivers and five airports. The Merchants Bridge is a major link in that chain.
The three Republican U.S. representatives from our area were absent from the freight summit because of a budget retreat. But the freight advocates from here left for Washington, D.C., right after it to carry the message to them and other federal authorities.
Our region is in the middle of everything, with half of the nation’s consumer markets within a two-day truck drive. This is the nation’s crossroads, and there is no surer way to boost the local economy than to build up and promote our transportation infrastructure.