By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
EAST ST. LOUIS — Taulby Roach, a traffic consultant enlisted to help plan road improvements on East St. Louis’ riverfront, says the changes could boost growth for generations.
The project really heated up about three years ago when Bunge, a major grain operator, decided to build a high-speed grain transfer facility on the riverfront, forming a limited partnership with SCF Marine (a division of shipping giant Seacor). The resultant facility is referred to as Bunge-SCF.
“When that plant is at a maximum load it could create an untenable traffic situation. The road infrastructure was not built to deal with that. I was asked to look at some solutions,” said Roach, who has led the project and works under contract for St. Clair County.
The Bunge project was under construction in 2013 when Roach and his team attempted, but failed to get a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant — commonly called TIGER. Despite the setback, project planners forged what would become invaluable partnerships with three private sector businesses along the riverfront, Bunge-SCF, Cargill (another grain operator) and the Casino Queen.
All three of the businesses saw value in rebuilding the main service road, Front Street, and in making improvements to several neighboring streets leading into the riverfront. Each business agreed to contribute $500,000 to the project, and Roach found other money through state and federal sources to pay for the infrastructure overhaul.
The scope of the project is smaller than the original plan.
“We pared the project down to what we thought were the minimum requirements. The result of that is what is in front of us today,” he said.
The original grant proposal including doing a bit more municipal roadwork. Trendley Avenue, a main connector to Front Street, will still be overlaid, but Broadway and Fourth Street are no longer part of the plan. Planners had to lean more on using the money toward the “economic development side,” and less on the “community building side,” he said.
The final agreements were a challenge. Grain businesses are competitive and reluctant to share information that they see as privileged. Jurisdictions had to sign off on rights of way that date back many years.
“The grant applications were somewhat difficult,” Roach said. “(The companies) were reluctant about releasing some of the fundamental data — for instance how many trucks, how many bushel loads going through. It was interesting in that we had to essentially forge cooperative agreements while in the background understanding there were trade secrets involved.”
At the same time, the businesses hold great respect for each other and for what the riverfront improvements can mean to their industry, he said.
Both companies have rail spurs leading to the Terminal Railroad tracks that service the area. Each has transfer facilities for barges.
Soon, they will have improvements to an interweaving series of roads that will allow trucks better access to the riverfront. The project will also include the resurfacing of Trendley Avenue from Front Street to Main Street; the reconstruction of West Missouri Avenue from Front Street to B Street; and the reconstruction of B Street from Missouri Avenue to River Park Drive.
The work is designed to make the most of a tie-in with a new spur leading from relocated Illinois Route 3 — a project that is well underway.
When complete, drivers coming off Route 3 will be able to access Front Street and the grain businesses without having to use Riverside Drive, the main road leading to the Casino Queen entrance. Transport will be more efficient and public access will be safer, Roach said.
Improvements south of the Casino Queen will also allow truck traffic to go out Trendley Avenue to Eighth Street, through Rush City and to the Sauget Route 3 connection.
That provides two Front Street connections, to the north and the south of River Park, he said.
The second phase of the project calls for rebuilding B Street and constructing a roundabout at the entrance of the casino, which will further discourage truck traffic and onto the roads that are more appropriately sized.
First-phase digging will begin in earnest during December. Low bidder Baxmeyer Construction Co. of Waterloo has been chosen as general contractor. Engineering is being done by TWM of Swansea. The first phase is expected to be done by the end of 2017, while the second phase, although not yet put out for bid, is expected to be done at the end of 2018.
The development of the East St. Louis riverfront has been stymied by the complex of highways that surround it.
“Access, smooth and appropriate, is a hallmark of successful businesses,” Roach said. “Part of the challenge of public policy professionals like myself is to figure out how to develop these kinds of partnerships and work out solutions that make sense. For both the community and the business interests.”
Years ago, most of the riverfront parcels were railroad stops, suited to the coal industry.
“Over the decades, we’ve shifted out of that, and now we’re trying to take the advantages of the river location. And there’s no moving that location,” Roach said. “The kind of nexus with rail and river access and, now, the enhanced highway access, is one of our biggest assets locally. What we need to do as professionals is to figure out how to capitalize on that and to respond to the needs of private industry.”
The second phase also calls for completing a loop of a riverfront bike trail. On the St. Louis side, there is a trail that runs north to the Chain of Rocks Bridge. However, on the Illinois side there is a trail coming down from the Chain of Rocks to the McArthur Bridge, but no trail from there to the Eads Bridge. That leg would be completed, allowing for biking the full length of both riverfronts, Roach said. A past effort to finance the trail with an ITEP grant failed, but the project partners anticipate continuing those efforts.
The relocation of a water main, a critical piece of the work, is already done. A new mile-long, 36-inch line now runs to the side or close to Front Street, replacing two, 20-inch water mains under Front Street. In places, the line takes a meandering path. For instance, it was relocated on the north side of Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park and part of it is going through Casino Queen property.
“We’ve had some great partners and I use Illinois American as an example. We went and talked to them and told them (what was happening and what was needed). They took the initiative,” Roach said.