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By ALAN J. ORTBALS
p11 Merchants BridgeArtist’s rendering of renovated Merchants Bridge.    One of the keys to success of the St. Louis Regional Freightway effort is the strength of the area’s railroads.
    Railroads are divided into three classes based on their operating revenue. Class I railroads are those with operating revenue in excess of $250 million and carry the most volume of freight. Of the seven Class I railroads servicing the country, six traverse the St. Louis terminal — the Union Pacific Railroad, the Norfolk Southern, CSX, the Canadian National, the Kansas City Southern and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe – BNSF. The Canadian Pacific is the only Class I railroad that does not come through the region.
    While the first railroads reached the Illinois bank of the Mississippi River in the 1830s, the first bridge to span the Mississippi River in St. Louis, the Eads Bridge, wasn’t completed until 1874 and it was privately owned and operated as a monopoly.
    Responding to exorbitant fees to use the bridge, the merchants of St. Louis came together to build their own bridge in 1889 north of the Eads, which became known as the Merchants Bridge. The 127-year old Merchants Bridge is still in service today.
    In the late 1800s, St. Louis had 24 railroads serving the St. Louis terminal, each either terminating or originating in the metropolitan area with their own track. The Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis was formed in 1889 to streamline rail traffic through St. Louis. It is currently owned by five of the six Class I railroads that serve St. Louis.
    In the 1980s when the MetroLink light rail system was being planned, the TRRA owned the Merchants Bridge and the Eads Bridge which last ran trains in the 1970s as the car lengths of modern rail traffic could no longer clear the sharp curvature of the Broadway Tunnel between Laclede’s Landing and Busch Stadium. Through a deal with the City of St. Louis, the TRRA swapped the Eads Bridge for the MacArthur Bridge to free the Eads up to carry MetroLink.
    Today, with a combination of the Merchants and MacArthur Bridges, St. Louis is the No. 1 geographic rail crossing across the Mississippi River with more than 70 crossings per day. But, that total is held down because the Merchants Bridge, due to the bridge’s age and the weight of modern trains, is only able to handle one train at a time despite having two tracks.
    One of the top priorities of the newly organized St. Louis Regional Freightway is to coalesce a regional consensus on priority projects. Number one on that list, by unanimous decree of all parties involved, is the renovation of the Merchant’s Bridge.
    The $211 million project will seismically retrofit the bridge by drilling new piling, encasing the existing masonry piers in concrete and replacing all three steel river trusses. The new structure will be constructed to modern clearances and load ratings to carry the next 100 years of heavier and wider freight. About $136 million is funded privately by TRRA and its owners. The Missouri Department of Transportation has agreed to apply for $75 million in federal funding through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program. While competition for the grants is stiff, Asim S. Raza, the TRRA’s chief legal officer and director of real estate and marketing, says the project has a good chance.
    “It’s a project of national significance,” Raza said, “because these are the only two rail crossings available to all the various Class I railroads up and down
    the Mississippi for approximately
    130 miles in either direction. There’s not a lot of rail crossings across the Mississippi River so the St. Louis area serves as a vital transportation
    gateway.”
    Raza said that they are hoping that grant awards will be made during the first quarter of 2018. If that comes to pass, he said, construction will begin soon afterward since all of the engineering has been completed and the plans are ready to bid.
    Construction is expected to take three to four years, Raza said. The three spans will be built on land then floated in by barge. Depending on the grant, the project is expected to begin in 2018 and be completed in 2021/22.
    “At one-time St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States and that was based upon its geographic assets and location,” Raza said. “What the Freightway is doing is focusing on those assets and marketing them regionally, nationally and internationally as a logistics area of importance.”