Replacement of 132-year-old St. Louis rail bridge nears completion

By Mark Schlinkmann for

Mark Schlinkmann

ST. LOUIS — The long-sought $222 million replacement of the circa 1890 Merchants Bridge, one of two local spans used by railroads to cross the Mississippi River, is nearing completion.

On Friday and Saturday, crews installed the last of three truss segments on the overhauled bridge north of downtown. Each segment weighs 9 million pounds.

Other work is expected to be done by the end of September and officials hope that the span, connecting St. Louis to Venice, will be fully operational by mid-October, following inspections. The project began more than three years ago.

Because of weight and speed restrictions imposed due to the old bridge’s condition, only one train could cross at a time, at about 5 mph, often causing delays.

Crews raise a new bridge truss into place on the Merchants Bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. This is the first of three trusses to be lifted in place for the $222 million project. Post-Dispatch file

The overhauled bridge will allow two tracks to be used simultaneously at speeds of up to 20 mph.

“If we did not have this bridge replaced, you would see a significant increase in bottlenecks and result in further delays in the supply chain,” said Asim Raza, chief legal officer for the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, which owns the bridge.

Terminal’s president, Brent Wood, said, “Our mission is to keep the St. Louis gateway for the railroads as fluid as possible.”

After the replacement span is finished, he said, trains won’t be sitting in yards on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the river waiting to use the bridge.

The $222 million project to replace the Merchants Bridge that carries railroad freight traffic between Missouri and Illinois is nearing completion. At left, on the east bank, sits the last of three new trusses scheduled to be installed, seen Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. The old truss that was removed is on the west bank at far right. Hillary Levin, Post-Dispatch

Debbie Fick, rail terminal manager here for Bruce Oakley Inc., a shipping company, said “maintaining and upgrading that bridge is critical,” especially for agriculture-related industry.

“It is especially important when the river closes” to barge traffic on the Mississippi north of the St. Louis area during wintry weather, she said.

Replacement of the bridge had been designated the metro area’s chief infrastructure priority several years ago by the St. Louis Regional Freightway, a booster group for the region’s freight industry.

Terminal Railroad officials say freight delays costing an estimated $36 million a year would continue if the bridge work wasn’t carried out.

And they say the deteriorating conditions on the span would have required it to be closed around 2025, spurring far greater losses for the freight industry.

Moreover, Regional Freightway executive director Mary Lamie has said, closure would harm the region’s ability to compete for economic development.

The Terminal Railroad is owned jointly by five major freight railroads operating here — Union Pacific Railroad, CSX Transportation, Canadian National Railway, Norfolk Southern Corp. and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

Amtrak, which runs passenger trains daily between St. Louis and Chicago, also uses the Merchants Bridge and the other freight span — the MacArthur Bridge on the south end of downtown — depending on which is available at the time.

”It was a choke point for freight trains,” Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, said of the Merchants. The overhaul “reduces the opportunity for us to be delayed. It helps us operate more smoothly.”

Raza said 90% of the project was financed by the sponsoring freight railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration kicked in $21.5 million.

During the project, he said, the bridge continued in operation except for 30 days — 10 days for each truss replacement. A single track will be put back in service around Wednesday.

The final main bridge segment, built in Wisconsin and assembled here, was  floated into place and hoisted by a gantry system. The old segment was cut from the foundation earlier in the week.

Once in place, a concrete foundation was to be poured and cured, with the new tracks installed in the coming week.

Previous parts of the project included seismic retrofitting of the bridge’s piers and rehabbing the Illinois approach. The Missouri approach was rebuilt in 2016.

Meanwhile, plans are underway for an estimated $60 million renovation of the other freight bridge, the MacArthur, which opened in 1917 and connects to East St. Louis.

Raza said Terminal later this year probably will seek bids for that project, which will be funded partly by a $28.8 million federal grant.

The project will replace the bridge’s worn steel girders built in 1912 and extend the bridge’s life to about 2085.

A previous project overhauled part of the Missouri approach to the MacArthur and allowed longer and wider railroad cars on the approach.

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