ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Top politicians from Missouri and Illinois joined the nation's transportation chief in ceremoniously breaking ground Monday on the first new Mississippi River bridge at congestion-plagued St. Louis in some four decades.
Monday's event largely was anticlimactic: Construction on the main span of the $670 million project got under way weeks ago after a ground-breaking ceremony first planned in February was foiled because dignitaries from Washington were snowed in and couldn't make it to St. Louis.
But given another chance, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood heralded the new span as vital in easing snarls at one of the nation's busiest crossings -- and proof that two neighboring states, despite years of bickering over financing that delayed the project, ultimately could make it happen.
"It takes a long time to get big things done," LaHood said during the pomp staged at the state line on the Eads Bridge, where a dump truck from each state flanked dignitaries including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and Rep. Jerry Costello, a Democrat from nearby Belleville, Ill., widely considered the project's catalyst.
LaHood said he hoped the event illustrates "that when people put down their agendas and put aside their egos and do what the people want, great things can happen."
Scheduled for completion in the middle part of this decade, the four-lane, cable-stayed bridge will divert Interstate 70 traffic from an existing bridge that's one of just two in the nation that accommodate three freeways. The plan also allows for the bridge, designed to be two lanes in each direction, to be expanded by a lane each way.
The project, meant to relieve the 47-year-old Poplar Street Bridge now used by more than 120,000 vehicles daily, is being funded by a mix of state funds and the $239 million U.S. taxpayers are kicking in.
Until both states struck a deal in early 2008, the project was consistently downsized and stalled by chronic haggling between Illinois and Missouri over financing even as traffic across the river continued to mushroom.
In the early 2000s, the new span was conceived to be eight lanes, cost $1.6 billion and be named the Ronald Wilson Reagan Memorial Bridge, ideally becoming a "signature bridge" and possible tourist draw near St. Louis' towering Gateway Arch.
That price tag later got chopped to $910 million, but the project still got snagged because of Missouri's insistence that it be a tollway -- something Illinois flatly rejected as potentially onerous on the tens of thousands of Illinois residents who commute daily to work in St. Louis and its Missouri suburbs.
Illinois later proposed a sister bridge to an existing span between the states, calling it affordable at half the price at as much as $450 million. That structure would carry four lanes of traffic -- all westbound -- after crews turned all lanes on the existing bridge to eastbound ones.
Missouri panned that as no long-term solution.
Both states ended the impasse in February 2008, announcing a $640 million compromise after Missouri relented on the tolls. The cost has since grown to $670 million because bids came in higher than expected.
The new bridge is expected to carry about 40,000 vehicles a day initially, up to 55,000 vehicles daily by 2030.
On the Net:
Mississippi River Bridge Project, http://www.newriverbridge.org
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