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Q&A with James M. Wild, executive director, East-West Gateway Council of Governments

EDITOR’S NOTE: East-West Gateway is the metropolitan planning organization for the area, which means it has the legal authority and responsibility for developing and adopting plans for the bistate region’s surface transportation system, among other things. Jim Wild was named to his post last fall.

IBJ: You’re no newcomer here. But it seems like you got here the old-fashion way: You earned it.

p06 wildWild: (Laughs) I hope so. I’ve had 23 years here. I was in Peoria for three years, right out of school, working for the metropolitan planning organization there. I came down here and started as a transportation analyst, working on the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). At that time, “Ice-Tea” — the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act — was this watershed transportation law that came out of Washington, D.C., restructuring how they were funding transportation. I was here to help figure out how we could review projects and rank them and get them into the program.
     After a few years I moved up to manager of the Transportation Improvement Program. After a few more years I moved up to division manager and took in not just the Transportation Improvement Program but also the Bike-Ped program, the freight program, the intelligent transportation systems and transit and paratransit programs.

IBJ: What a great learning experience this must have been.

Wild: It was. You know it’s funny, when I got out of school, the last thing I wanted to go into was transportation.

IBJ: What was your degree in?

Wild: Community and regional planning. In Peoria, half my time was spent on land use planning and half on transportation planning.

IBJ: Are you from Illinois?

Wild: No, I’m from a small town in Iowa, about 350 people. I just worked my way south.

IBJ: What brought you to your current position?

Wild: About four years ago, Maggie Hales left. She was the interim executive director between Les Sterman and Ed Hillhouse. She left to go run CityArchRiver, and at that point I got promoted to deputy executive director. I was in that spot for three years. Then, Ed left, I went through the interview process, and fortunately the board selected me.
I was very grateful. A couple of big things happened to me as deputy when we worked on (improvements to) the Poplar Street bridge. With the new (Stan Musial Veterans Memorial) river bridge opening up, another part of that plan was closing a ramp (to Illinois) off of Memorial Drive, which we did, but it almost didn’t happen. Illinois didn’t want to lose the access, so we went out and did an independent review. I managed that project.
    The solution we came up with, aside from finding about $25 million (from Illinois), was going ahead and eliminating the ramp, taking the south span of the Poplar Street Bridge, lifting it up, sliding it, putting it back down and adding another lane eastbound.
    But the piece that sold it to the Illinois board members is off the Martin Luther King Bridge, where we’re putting a ramp directly to Illinois 3. In some respects it’s probably better access. You don’t have to struggle with the (Poplar Street) bridge and all those weaving movements. We went from a 12-12 vote to a unanimous vote for the project and are moving ahead.

IBJ: In terms of the regional approach, how have things changed between Missouri and Illinois?

Wild: That’s a good question. At some level, Illinois is starting to come into their own on this. They were probably overshadowed by Missouri a lot, but there are a lot of things going on in Illinois that I think can’t be ignored by Missouri. Not they are doing it intentionally. St. Louis as a region is a pretty parochial place, and elected officials, by virtue of what they do, have to be focused on their jurisdictions. And everyone is starting to open up their vision a little more, seeing that all boats rise. It’s not just what you do but what your neighbors do.
    One good example of that is the regional freight study that Gateway did. We wrapped that up about two years ago and at the direction of our board went right into a strategic action plan. We put together a working group, one of the best I’ve ever been a part of. We worked through the logistics of how it was going to happen.
    In July of last year we hired Mary Lamie (former IDOT regional director) and brought her on, housed at Bi-State.  I’ve chaired that process all the way through. We’re getting the formal committee together and getting the bylaws all mapped out. In the meantime, Mary’s doing a wonderful job. It’s all about relationships, knowing who to talk to.

IBJ: It’s taken a while for the idea of reaching across the river to become a part of the daily, regional thought process.

Wild: That’s on my plate of things to push — regional cooperation and collaboration, working together. That river is a big resource, but it’s a big impediment in some ways. It makes it tougher on St. Louis than in some other areas, when you look at the bureaucracy we deal with. We have two different states obviously, but we’re in two different federal regions. Everything we do we have to do double. We get our TIP approved, MoDOT has to approve it, IDOT has to approve it (and governors of both states). Federal Highway Administration both for Illinois and Missouri have to approve it, Federal Transit Administration regional offices in Kansas City and Chicago have to; EPA, same thing.

IBJ: It’s a wonder you get anything done.

Wild: Yeah, it kind of is. We’ve been able to work some things out where there is lead agency for each of those departments, but at some level there is a bureaucracy that wears some people down. As a planner you don’t typically get to see your project come to fruition. The way it works, you’re putting it in the last year of a five-year plan. By the time construction comes along it’s sometimes six or seven years later and you’re not always around. But it’s really fulfilling to see these things happen.

IBJ: East-West Gateway is just coming off its 50th year. How has it changed?

Wild: There was this kind of apex in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when there were a lot of other funding programs that we were involved with — a lot of environmental, a lot of housing, a lot of HUD programs. But in those decades those monies ended up drying up and going away. At one point we had well over 100 employees. But the entire time I’ve been at Gateway, we’ve had about 55 to 60 employees.
    Transportation was always the bread and butter of the agency. We’ve diversified a little bit. About five years ago we did a regional sustainability plan. It’s not just green. It’s triple bottom line, the economy, social impact, working together. There are nine different categories in the document. It’s all about growing the region, the big picture — education, connectivity (and others.)
    As a region we competed for and were successful at getting a $4.8 million grant from HUD, EPA and DOT combined. Gateway and 10 other partners (Great Rivers Greenway, Madison County, St. Clair County, etc.).

IBJ: Speaking of money, what’s it like these days trying to get funding from any political bodies?

Wild: We finally got the transportation law approved last year, the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act). That was years in the works, probably 10 years where we were working off eight, 10- and 12-month continuing resolutions. They finally locked into a five-year law. The funding is up a little bit, but not much. The way it works is the money comes from Washington to the states and from the states down to the urban areas. Just the fact that they’ve locked into a five-year buildup makes things a little more stable. With that instability comes higher prices for construction, higher prices for consulting services. You look at the situation in Missouri, and you’ve had a lot of contractors leaving the state just to get business.

IBJ: A lot in Illinois have done that, too.

Wild: They’re feeling the same thing. You’ve got that funding situation between the governor and the legislature, and we’re kind of held hostage in that, also. A lot of our money is tied to those budgets.

IBJ: Any major projects to be launched this year by the agency?

Wild: One of our departments is “STARRS” — the St. Louis Area Regional Response System. Homeland Security funding that comes to the region comes through out STARRS department. We do hazard planning and training and exercises for police, fire, manmade terrorism, that sort of thing. One of the things we’ve been doing came to a close in some respects after seven years, putting together a regional microwave communication system.

IBJ: So if major communications go down you’ll still have a way to talk via microwave?

Wild: More than that really. Before, police couldn’t talk to fire, cities couldn’t talk to counties, Bi-State couldn’t talk to its transit system. With this being a regional system, it allows state to talk to state, county to talk to county, EMS to talk to fire, police. It’s all emergency use right now, but there have been talks about trying to expand it so it has a greater regional benefit.

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