Posted on Monday, July 11, 2005

Transportation leaders contemplate alternatives for new bridge

   Although in discussion phase only at this point, congressional leaders and state transportation officials are pondering alternative scenarios of approaching the New Mississippi River Bridge project, should the federal transportation reauthorization bill known as TEA-21 result in fewer dollars than Illinois and Missouri have been hoping for.

   Illinois Department of Transportation region 5 engineer Mary Lamie said that as interested parties await the ultimate outcome of the Surface Transportation Act - one that at press time had been extended an eighth time until July 20 - Illinois is engaging in detailed discussion over changes in the new bridge project scope and construction timeframe.

   The discussions are necessary, she said; although IDOT remains optimistic over getting enough federal dollars to launch the $1.6 billion effort, it is likely that not enough dollars will be allocated in order to complete the project in six years - the duration of the soon-to-be-decided transportation funding legislation.

   "From our perspective, our strategy now is to wait for that transportation bill to be announced, and that announcement will determine the extent of construction (of the new bridge) as well as the duration of construction," said Lamie. "If we don't get the $1.3 billion in additional federal funding we'd initially hoped for, we need to have solid alternatives in place for the dollars we are allotted."

   Together IDOT and the Missouri Department of Transportation have committed to funding a total of $350 million of their own six-year state transportation program budgets collectively, according to Teresa Price, region 5 program development engineer.

   Lamie said if the total dollars earmarked for the new bridge total more like $550 million rather than $1.6 billion - the actual cost of erecting the span and related roadwork - IDOT and MoDOT would likely be able to complete construction of the 2,000-foot-long, 222-foot-wide, cable-stayed bridge's foundation and a portion of the pilon, the part of the concrete structure that rises from the water. At the $550 million level of funding, the approaches for the structure as well as the relocation of Interstate 70 could likely be completed, but that would be the extent of the project's progress over the coming six-year period.

   "The transportation bill is absolutely essential to the success of the New Mississippi River Bridge project," Lamie said. "Because of the significant cost of this project, both departments of transportation are very much committed to taking a second look at this project. We're very aggressively relooking at it. With the current budget issues both regionally and nationally, we know we're not going to get the $1.3 billion."

   Lamie and Price credited U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, a Democrat from Illinois, for continuing to fight for discretionary dollars to fund the new bridge project. If Illinois and Missouri would be successful in seeing the new bridge effort identified by Congress as a "mega project," the project would qualify for additional federal dollars that are not part of whatever state-by-state allotment formula is approved.

   But time is money, said Lamie, especially when it comes to construction costs.

   "The initial construction timeframe for this project was six years," she said. "But if, for example, we would only receive $50 million (in federal transportation dollars) per year rather than $300 million per year, it could take more than 30 years to complete the project. And that's just not an option, since increases in construction costs would more than double."

   In addition to the possibility of scaling back the scope of the new bridge project and attempting to shorten the duration of construction, IDOT's Price said a few other alternatives are being discussed.

   One is placing a toll charge on the new bridge, she said - but unlike Missouri, the state of Illinois does not even have legislation in place to be able to assess tolls on the bridge.

   Costello said he is fervently opposed to charging tolls on the New Mississippi River Bridge because it would only contribute to traffic congestion.

   "There's no question that a new bridge is needed in the area," said Costello. "Traffic congestion is only getting worse. When I was chairman of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council back in the 1980s, we performed a study on congestion. It became very clear, and it remains clear today, that tolling one bridge will not work. You would either have to toll all of the (Mississippi River) bridges or none of them."

   Costello has been meeting regularly with Tim Martin, Illinois' secretary of transportation.

   An alternative the congressman is willing to entertain, he said, would be a public-private partnership to fund the new bridge effort.

   "I am open to that," Costello said.

   IDOT has not yet engaged in a public-private partnership to accomplish a major transportation construction project. But earlier this year, the city of Chicago was the first governmental entity in the U.S. to turn a public toll road, the Chicago Skyway, over to private-sector management. The $1.82 billion privatization strategy has been discussed by Milwaukee, Wis. as a means of financing its freeway construction.

   Although Wisconsin's current governor stands opposed to public-private interstate construction partnerships, former Wisconsin legislator Kevin Soucie said Chicago's Skyway deal is "an indication of what's coming."