Illinois and Missouri leaders set aside past differences over a new Mississippi River bridge on Monday, turning over shovels full of dirt from both states in a ceremonial groundbreaking on the historic Eads Bridge.
"It's been a long haul," said Missouri Transportation Director Pete Rahn. "We have worked very hard together to reach an agreement to allow this important project to move forward."
By the time it opens in 2014, the bridge will carry Interstate 70 over the river. The span will be north of the Edward Jones Dome near Cass Avenue. The new bridge is part of a $670 million assortment of projects that will link I-70 to the Interstate 55/64/70 interchange in East St. Louis.
Besides alleviating traffic jams on the Poplar Street Bridge, the bridge will spur economic development in the region and ease east-west traffic flows in the I-70 corridor across the country, officials said.
"This is about jobs. It's about economic development," said U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition. "It's about reducing congestion. It's about getting commerce from one coast to the other coast in the United States."
The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association said construction will generate 1,500 jobs a year through 2014. MoDOT estimates it will create 2,200 primary and secondary jobs.
The two states had clashed over whether to pay for the bridge with motorist tolls, and whether to build a smaller bridge in a different location. The governors of both states finally agreed on a compromise agreement to build the bridge — without tolls — but with four lanes instead of the original eight.
"Now I hope we can put the Mississippi River file back in storage," quipped U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. "It got to be a thick one."
Illinois Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig acknowledged the two states have "had our ups and downs" before reaching a compromise agreement on the bridge plan more than two years ago.
"But as anything that's worthwhile, it certainly was something now that we can both be proud of," Hannig said.
Shortly after the ceremony, the United Congregations of Metro-East appealed to transportation officials to ensure that more of the work goes to minority workers and subcontractors than is currently proposed.
So did U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.
"I challenge both IDOT and MoDOT to make diversity real instead of just an afterthought," he said.
State transportation officials on Monday pledged to stress diversity on the bridge project.