Transportation officials in Illinois and Missouri agree there is a dire need for more highway lanes over the Mississippi River at St. Louis, but they disagree over how to pay for them.
Missouri wants to build a toll bridge. Illinois wants a bridge built without tolls. The standoff is delaying plans for a bridge to relieve one of the most badly traffic-congested areas in either state.
Fewer Lanes Available Now
“In the 1960s there were 22 lanes that crossed the river there. Today there are only 16 lanes, even though there’s been a big increase in traffic,” said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).
“This is a big concern. We anticipate that by 2020 rush-hour congestion periods will double in the St. Louis area,” Vanover said.
His counterpart in the Missouri Department of Transportation, Jeff Briggs, agrees with that assessment.
“Those bridges are impossibly backed up at times,” Briggs said, “and it’s only going to get worse.”
On the fundamental question of how to address the problem, though, there is big disagreement.
Missouri Wants Private Partnership
Briggs said there is an excellent reason to go the toll bridge route: It would save taxpayers a huge amount of money. In June Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) signed into law a measure that allows a public-private partnership for the bridge project.
“We could contract with a vendor for them to build this bridge,” Briggs said. “They could finance their investment with tolls.
“We could get a bridge built without having to come up with tax money. Somehow, we’re going to have to have some agreement [with Illinois officials] before we get to the point to solicit proposals from anybody,” Briggs said.
Illinois Rejects Toll Idea
Vanover said Illinois wants to pay for a bridge out of its normal road program revenues.
“We’re hopeful we can work a solution,” Vanover said. “IDOT’s policy always has been there should be a bridge where Illinois residents are not required to pay a toll. The majority of residents are going to St. Louis for work or spending money in St. Louis.
“Missouri gets a lot from Illinois,” Vanover continued. “Our residents would be paying for a bridge out of their taxes. They shouldn’t have to pay a toll as well.”
Briggs responded that Illinois residents would not have to pay a toll to cross the river, even if a new bridge is funded by tolls.
“Existing bridges would remain free,” Briggs said. “If [Illinois drivers] don’t want to pay a toll, they would be free to go across the other bridges.”
In addition to the argument over how to pay for a new bridge, there is an argument over what type of bridge to build.
Illinois Presents Smaller Plan
Planning for another bridge began in 1992. Original plans included a bridge that would have cost almost $2 billion, to be shared by both states. Officials in both states balked at the high cost, and Missouri officials came back in 2005 with a design for an eight-lane bridge estimated at present to cost $910 million.
Illinois has responded with plans for a “coupler” bridge of four lanes adjacent to the existing Martin Luther King bridge. The King bridge, now four lanes wide, would be narrowed to three lanes, for a net gain of three lanes over the river.
The cost of the coupler bridge would be about half the cost of Missouri’s proposed eight-lane bridge. Vanover said the coupler bridge “would relieve I-70 traffic and improve traffic downtown.”
Not good enough, said Briggs. “Our concern is that three additional lanes instead of eight does not address the long-term needs of the area,” he said. “We say build a bridge that meets needs for the long term.”
The current river crossings include the eight-lane Poplar Street bridge, one of only two bridges in the United States that carries traffic from three interstate highways (I-55, I-64, and I-70), according to state transportation officials.
Missouri Congressman Backs Illinois
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) has expressed his support for the Illinois proposal. The Missouri side of the proposed bridges would land in his 1st Congressional District.
In a July 12 announcement, Clay said, “The Illinois Department of Transportation and Governor [Rod] Blagojevich are not proposing that we contribute the half of the price tag that one might expect. Instead, they are only proposing that the State of Missouri put $50 million into the bridge project. Essentially, the people of Missouri are getting a $450 million bridge for $50 million, 11 percent of the total cost. … As I see it, that is one heck of a deal for Missouri tax payers!”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.