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By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
p01 arial viewThis aerial view, looking northwest, shows the Merchants Bridge crossing the Mississippi River at far left. Illinois Route 3 bisects the center of the photo, and Broadway in Venice bisects near the bottom, through the community’s large railyard.    VENICE — Poised at one of the most important freight crossings in the United States, the Merchants Bridge represents a vital link for agriculture, coal and other producers and the consumers who depend on those goods.
    But, without a significant overhaul in just a few years, that link will be gone, a fact that has supporters scrambling for financing to complete a project long in the works.
    “It’s ranked very highly, if not the most important project, by our committee,” said Mike McCarthy, a member of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois’ SITE committee, which reviews and prioritizes multimodal projects for the region. McCarthy is president of the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, which owns the bridge.
    John Nations, president and chief executive officer of the Bi-State Development Agency, which oversees the new St. Louis Regional Freightway, agrees.
    “The No. 1 infrastructure project is, of course, the Merchants Bridge,” Nations said.
    It is predicted that main span reconstruction would cost $210 million to $220 million, take three years and generate 1,060 construction jobs.
    Leadership on both sides of the river is in sync on the need. The bridge, built in 1890 across the Mississippi River, serves both the giant railyards in Venice and similar rail services and truck lines on the north St. Louis side, but more importantly it is a gateway between east and west, sending freight across the nation.
    The sole purpose behind forming the Terminal Railroad Association in 1889 was the safe, efficient and economical movement of rail freight through the St. Louis gateway, for all rail carriers, McCarthy said.
    “One-hundred twenty-seven years later, we are still providing the same service to the region,” he said.
    McCarthy made a substantial presentation last month at a Southwestern Illinois Senate Transportation Discussion sponsored by Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois in Belleville.
    As far as a transportation hub, the region stacks up well, he said. It ranks third in rail tonnage, behind Chicago and Kansas City. It is the No. 2 rail interchange, which denotes movement between rail carriers, behind only Chicago. The network in general serves the second-largest inland port in America, which is St. Louis Port District.
    There has been tremendous growth in the system the last 12 years, McCarthy said.
    “Five new rail-to-barge transfer facilities that can accept unit trains and are truck capable have been built, all on the Illinois riverfront, which is the naturally dredged side of the river. Many other, existing ones have been expanded,” he said.
    At one point, perhaps 10 years ago, 6 percent of the agricultural product that moved through New Orleans to international markets originated in the St. Louis gateway. Today, New Orleans port operators put that number at 30 percent.
    Local rail bridges are indispensable to what has become a rapidly growing rail hub, McCarthy said.
    There are 23 railroad crossings on the Mississippi, from Minnesota to New Orleans. Eleven of those touch down in the state of Illinois.
    Of the six that carry 30 or more trains a day, five touch Illinois.
    And two of them — the Merchants and the MacArthur bridges in St. Louis — account for 73 crossings per day, “making ours the busiest rail crossing geographically of all of them,” McCarthy said.
    The Terminal Railroad’s bridges are open access, meaning they are open to any railroad that wants to use them — sharing a Mississippi River distinction with only the Huey Long Bridge in New Orleans.
    That access is a major transportation safeguard, McCarthy said.

IBJ staff report
    Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois has a long list of multimodal priorities that members say will positively alter the familiar landscape of Madison and St. Clair counties.
    Air, highway, rail and water transport projects are all reflected in the report, discussed in detail during a recent Senate Transportation gathering in Belleville.
    Several of the projects have already received funding and are simply being supported as a matter of importance. Others are still awaiting funding.

Now underway:
    Poplar Street Bridge interchange and widening, an overall $60 million project to be completed in 2018. The interchange is being financed by Missouri, while the widening is being funded by both states.
    - The Martin Luther King Bridge connector, $25 million, this spring
    - The Interstate 64/Rieder Road interchange in St. Clair County, $40 million, this summer.
    - Replacing the 51-year-old Interstate 270 Mississippi River Bridge with a new six-lane structure; $10 million in preliminary engineering now underway. Total price estimate of $160 million to $175 million
    - Regional freight initiatives
    IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn called the Rieder Road interchange “a step toward developing that whole area” around Scott Air Force Base and MidAmerica Airport.

Congestion mitigation projects, all in planning but not funded, include:
    - Widening of Interstate 270 from four to six lanes between Illinois Route 111 in Illinois to Lilac Avenue in St. Louis County. Estimated at $350 million to $400 million
    - Supporting Merchants Bridge replacement
    - The Falling Springs Road/Illinois Route 3 Railroad Bypass at Sauget, total project $22 million but with a $10.3 million funding shortfall.
    - Interstate 255/Davis Street Ferry Road new interchange near Dupo, total project $35 million but with a $9 million shortfall
    - Lenox Railroad Tower upgrade at Mitchell, including new switches, to increase freight and passenger speeds, $12 million to $15 million

By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    Home sales were strong across Southwestern Illinois in 2016 with the number of sales up 7 percent across the 11-county region represented by the Realtors Association of Southwestern Illinois and the Greater Gateway Association of Realtors.
p01 frazierFrazier    St. Clair, Monroe, and Randolph Counties all set records for home sales in 2016. St. Clair County reported an increase of 10.7 percent compared to 2015.  Realtors in Randolph County sold 5.4 percent more homes in 2016 over 2015.  And, Monroe County followed suit with a 1.4 percent increase in year-to-date home sales in 2016. 
    “We are excited yet not surprised by the results of 2016,” stated Mike Gross, president of the Realtor Association of Southwestern Illinois.  “We are hopeful that this trend will continue into 2017.  As Realtors, we spent a lot of time helping people reach the American dream, and we are proud of our role in that.  Not only do we help buyers and sellers in the home buying and selling, p01 wigtonWigtonbut another huge part of our job as Realtors is fighting for the rights of private property owners, which we did in 2016.  Our dedication to the Metro East and homeownership will continue into 2017.”
    On the northern end, Bond County boasted the best year with an increase in home sales of more than 27 percent. But, the county that sold the most homes in Southwestern Illinois during the year was Madison with 3,374, a 6 percent increase over 2015.
    “It was a great year,” said Rob Wigton, CEO of the GGAR, “and it’s continued strong through the winter, when normally it slows down a bit. Homes are selling relatively quickly and getting either full asking price or very close to what they are listing them for. If anything, we need more inventory.”
    December 2016 was a particularly great month for Monroe and Clinton Counties.  Realtors in Clinton County sold 30.8 percent more homes in December 2016 than in December 2015.  In that same comparison, Monroe County reported a 41.2 percent in home sales.  Monroe County also recorded a 100 percent increase in home sales in December 2016 compared to November 2016.  Realtors in Clinton County recorded a 112 percent increase in home sales in December 2016 over November of last year.  Looking at the same comparison, in December 2016, St. Clair County reported 7.1 percent increase in home sales.
    Median home prices in the Southwestern Illinois also increased in December 2016 over December 2015.  In St. Clair County, the median home price rose 14.8 percent, and Monroe County saw a 15.1 percent rise.  Clinton County recorded a 26.6 percent increase in median home price while Randolph County reported a 15.7 percent increase compared to December 2015.  Madison County saw a 12 percent increase in sale price for December 2016 over the same period the year before.
    “I think the recent bump in interest rates got people off the fence,” said Deb Frazier, CEO of RASI. They don’t want to lose out on these great interest rates and I think that’s part of why we’ve seen such a busy January.”

 

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    ALTON – Simmons Hanly Conroy, one of the nation’s largest mass torts firms, is pleased to announce that the firm is listed for the seventh consecutive year as the largest plaintiffs’ law firm in the St. Louis metropolitan area, according to the 2017 ranking by the St. Louis Business Journal.
    Published Jan. 27, the Largest Law Firms list has Simmons Hanly Conroy ranked as the region’s 12th largest overall among the firms the publication evaluated. The list ranks 78 law firms. In 2016, Simmons Hanly Conroy was ranked as the 13th largest law firm in the St. Louis area.