Crews continue Merchants Bridge rehab

How TRRA will fix area’s 2nd-oldest bridge

By Charles Bolinger for

It survived two world wars, The Great Depression, 21 U.S. Presidents and multiple floods as its triple trusses have hulked over the Mississippi River since the Reconstruction Era.

Of all the Mississippi River bridges at St. Louis, only the Eads Bridge is older than the Merchants Bridge, which was finished in 1890. The Merchants Bridge is the link between eastern and western rail freight, it carries more than 40 gross tons every year and serves six Class I Railroads.

The bridge is one of St. Louis Regional Freightway’s priority projects for 2021.

Current restrictions are that two trains cannot pass each other at the same time on the bridge due to load restrictions. The bridge, which spans the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Venice is owned by the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis (TRRA).

“In terms of the Merchants Bridge, it’s one of the main east-west rail corridors in the region. It’s an absolute vital artery in order to maintain efficient rail movement across the Mississippi River,” commercial manager at Watco Terminal and Port Services, Ryan Krull said in June.

The TRAA is already heavily involved in rehabilitating the 130-year-old bridge for the 21st Century and beyond. Funding was announced in the spring of 2018. Walsh Construction Co. from Chicago began working on the bridge and its approaches in 2019 and the project, weather-permitting, should be complete in 2022.

Work on the railroad bridge directly employs 150 people, with as many as 1,100 total jobs if suppliers and related companies are added.

The replacement spans will be wide enough to handle two locomotives weighing 315,000 pounds each. The new double track will provide more reliable movements and reduce delays for motorists and first responders as trains will no longer have to wait for each other on the approaches.

All three main spans need to be removed and replaced, the existing river piers needs to be seismically retrofitted and the eastern approach needs to be improved, despite both approaches being rebuilt 15 years ago (watch embedded video). When necessary during construction, trains will be re-routed across the MacArthur Bridge, which TRAA also owns and is the other railroad bridge in downtown St. Louis, just south of the Poplar Street Bridge.

The TRAA and local elected officials hoped for federal aid to cover one-third of the bridge’s estimated $222 million cost, but that application was rejected. Rather than give up on the project, TRAA announced it will fund the remainder of the work due to the aged bridge’s condition and crucial roles it serves. Later, the Federal Railroad Administration gave $21.5 million in grants, or about 10 percent, toward the project.

The bridge links the nation’s eastern and western freight rail networks, it carries more than 40 million gross tons every year and serves six Class I railroads plus Amtrak. This region is the second-largest freight rail interchange location in the country and the third-largest such interchange location by tonnage. Area manufacturing and logistics companies served included U.S. Steel, Conoco Phillips, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, World Wide Technologies, General Motors, Hershey’s, Unilever, Bunge, FedEx, Boeing and more.

With improvements to the bridge, an estimated 185,676 truck loads could be diverted from area highways to rail, reducing vehicle miles traveled by trucks by 74 million miles and saving $63 million in roadway damage over 20 years.

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December 2023