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The Only River Connection From St. Louis To Cape, Chester Bridge Undergoes An Environmental Study

Lindsey Grojean/KRCU

In spring of 2017, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Southeast District began an environmental study on the Chester Bridge. It connects Route 51, and poses no real danger to the 6,500 vehicles that use it a day. But due to modern standards, it’s still being checked for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. I spoke with Buddy Desai, the consultant project manager of the study. He says they’ve received approval from the Federal Highway Administration on what they call a purpose and needs, which outlines the issues of the bridge, and they’re in the process of developing conceptual alternatives.

We’re looking at a number of different things to try to address the issues. One is to rehabilitate the existing bridge, second would be to actually build a new bridge, either upstream or downstream, or at the existing location. We have developed those conceptual alternatives, and right now we’re doing the screening to see which of those alternatives meet the project’s purpose and needs. So we’ve had two advisor group meetings. We’ve got a community advisor group made up of some of the stakeholders in the area, and we’re working with them through the process, as well as working with the larger populations of stakeholders who use the bridge for either work or for leisure, or for shopping between Chester and Perryville. The next step of the project is we will take the screenings and determine which of those conceptual alternatives actually meet purpose and needs, and those will be determined as the reasonable alternatives. We should have those available in the early part of next year, probably early February or March we would be able to come to the public and tell them which of the conceptual alternatives made it through the screening. And then we’ll do a detailed impact analysis on those reasonable alternatives, and we plan on having the preferred alternatives. So these will be will be the proposed alternatives sometime in the summer of next year. Then we document everything: we’ll prepare the environmental assessment and get that circulated late next year, and then we’ll start the project in spring of 2019, assuming all goes to schedule.

So what has public feedback looked like so far?

So the purpose and needs... again, we use the public feedback to develop purpose and needs. The things that we heard consistently is one: that the bridge is too narrow. Currently it’s two 11-foot lanes with no shoulder. So very narrow travelways. There’s no shoulder for people to pull over in case there’s an emergency. There’s no shoulder for maintenance vehicles, so MoDOT needs to go out there and maintain the bridge from time to time, and they have to close down a lane of traffic every time they do that. So one: the bridge is too narrow. Secondly, the bridge is in poor condition, and that’s consistent with MoDOT’s condition reports for the Mississippi River crossing. It’s listed as one of the bridges on the poor listing in Missouri, so that’s the second thing. The third thing is that Route 51 crosses a levee on the MIssouri side of the river, but the road is not at the level of the height of the levee. So, when you have floods like we had in May of this year, MoDOT needs to basically bridge that levee. Complete the levee, if you will. Which causes the road to be shut down for as long as the flooding persists. Those are the three main elements consistent with just about everyone we talk to. They’ve mentioned the poor condition of the bridge, the narrowness of the lanes, and then the requirement that any time there’s significant flooding, the road needs to be shut down. And that really becomes an issue, because the nearest Mississippi River crossings are either down in Cape [Girardeau] or up in St. Louis, so almost 50 miles away. So a detour would result in at least 100 miles of out-of-direction traffic.

And for the bridge, I know that it’s narrow and I know that it’s old. Do you know how specifically old it is?

I want to say it was built in the mid-40s; it’s over 70 years old. It’s still safe. I want to make sure everybody understands that. It’s in poor condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a safe bridge. It’s a bridge that’s used by about 6,500 or so vehicles a day, and quite a few trucks. With the narrowness of the lanes, from our conversations with the police department, they need to shut the bridge down about 400 times a year for wide loads to cross. So on average, over one time a day. And that takes resources. The police department has to put vehicles on both sides of the bridge, shut it down for 10 minutes or 15 minutes - however long it takes for wide loads to come across.

So other than the narrowness, is there anything else wrong with the bridge in terms of it’s infrastructure?

Well, it is on the list of poor condition bridges, and so there are some challenges with the bridge deck itself. There’s some challenges with what we call the substructure that’s underneath the bridge. Because it’s on the poor list, because it’s over 70 years old, MoDOT has decided to take a look at what might be the solution. And something I want to add - when I talked on alternatives, one alternative that will follow through is called the no-build alternative, and that's part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. It requires that the no-build also be considered all the way through to the very end. So, we’re looking at either not doing anything - just routine maintenance to rehabilitate the existing bridge, but obviously that wouldn’t make the lanes wider, it would just try to get it off the list of poor condition bridges in Missouri - and then we’ve got the build alternative. We’ve got upstream, downstream, and on existing location. But I can tell you, almost consistently across the board, that there’s tremendous support for this project and we have a lot of people saying, you know, ‘Let’s do this as soon as we can’.

Thank you so much.

You’re welcome.

For more information on the Chester Bridge Study and how you can participate, visit www.chesterbridgestudy.com.