Country’s freight nexus is ready to compete for infrastructure projects

The release of President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan has sparked renewed discussion about the vital need to rebuild and modernize our nation’s infrastructure and the role that individual states, local communities and the private sector will have to play in funding that rebuilding.

In the St. Louis region — the country’s freight nexus — those discussions have been underway for some time, and they have resulted in concrete actions that have our metropolitan area well-positioned to compete for whatever federal dollars may be available to help address key infrastructure priorities.

The region’s highest priority, one with national significance, is the replacement of the 128-year-old Merchants Bridge, one of two rail bridges used by six Class I railroads and Amtrak to cross the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Currently, only one train at a time, traveling 5 miles per hour, can cross the bridge, creating a significant rail bottleneck that has impact not just locally, but for the national freight network. Unless addressed, this critical bridge will go out of service in less than 10 years, forcing extensive reroutes and impacting transportation costs to all modes of transportation, as well as the region’s ability to compete in the global market.

In contrast, with a price tag of $200 million, replacement of Merchants Bridge has the potential to greatly improve freight movement in the nation and create more than $456 million in local economic activity over a 20-year period, nearly double the current impact.

Those very real challenges and tremendous opportunities helped propel the project to the top of the list of 20 infrastructure priorities the St. Louis Regional Freightway has worked to develop and build consensus around over the past two years, uniting local governments, Class I railroads, port and barge industries, and other stakeholders in regional freight and manufacturing. The list has unanimous regional approval and the backing of both the Missouri and Illinois congressional delegations, which has vaulted regional priorities into national priorities.

The plan to replace Merchants Bridge is a prime example of the type of public-private partnership that has potential to succeed in the current funding climate that puts heavy emphasis on private investment. The Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis has committed to funding nearly two-thirds of the project’s cost, with the remainder hopefully to be covered by federal funds currently being sought through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, Bi-State Development and the railroad association jointly submitted the application, which is further bolstered by united support from East-West Gateway Council of Governments’ Board of Directors, a joint letter of support from all four U.S. senators from Illinois and Missouri, individual letters of support from the region’s U.S. House of Representatives, and more than 50 private-sector letters of support.

We should find out later this year if the application is successful and, if so, the project could begin right away and be completed as early as 2021. We’re hoping for a positive outcome and eager to tackle the additional priority infrastructure projects aimed at solidifying the St. Louis region’s position as a premier freight gateway and multimodal hub.

Improving Interstate 270 from Lindbergh Boulevard in Missouri to Route 111 in Illinois, including replacing the Chain of Rocks Bridge, is another priority project focused on improving the region’s transportation network. The top projects identified as priorities for improving access to the region’s multimodal network are the North Riverfront Corridor Improvements, including Hall Street, Branch Street and the Municipal River Terminal rail access; Illinois Route 3 improvements, which include improving the highway from East St. Louis to Sauget; and the Falling Springs Road Alton & Southern Railroad bypass.

The Freightway is committed to working collaboratively with public- and private-sector leaders to help validate these and other multimodal transportation needs and explore funding opportunities for efficient, reliable, cost-effective and safe delivery of freight movement that the St. Louis region and the nation depends on to compete globally.

Mary C. Lamie is executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway.

Published for stltoday.com by Mary C. Lamie

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