Inspection Shows Major Heartland Bridge Needs Work

Inspection Shows Major Heartland Bridge Needs Work
By: Mike Shain
Old but solid, for the most part.
Following the catastrophic bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Missouri inspected all similar spans in the state.  One of those bridges crosses the Mississippi River between Perry County, Missouri, and Chester, Illinois.  Inspectors say the 65-year-old bridge is sound but the deck is showing need for maintenance.
Chester and Perryville have formed a task force to get the needed work done.  Missouri's Department of Transportation estimates the work would cost $4 million.  This at a time when MODOT is looking for money to replace or repair hundreds of deficient bridges in the state.
Chester Mayor Marty Bert says the economies of both cities are closely tied and depend on the bridge.
"Almost every business in town has some type of delivery come across that bridge," said Larry Tucker, Executive Director of the Perry County Industrial Development Authority. He says getting needed maintenance on the bridge is essential. 
According to his estimates, "better than ten percent of the traffic on that bridge is commercial traffic between major industries in the two cities."  Those include major employers such as TG USA in Perryville, Menard Prison in Chester and the Heartland's largest employer,(3,000 workers) Gilster Mary Lee. 
Gilster produces food products sold in most grocery stores across the nation.  Everything from pudding mix to microwave popcorn and dozens of other products.  The company runs a fleet of 300 trucks and with four plants in Missouri and four in Illinois, its trucks come and go across the Chester Bridge.     
Gilster President Don Welge remembers the Flood of 1993 when water covered the Missouri approach, shutting down the bridge.  The usual 15 minute trip between Perryville and Chester turned into a 2 ½ hour detour through Cape Girardeau.
The bridge is safe for both cars and trucks, now.  But both towns worry that Missouri could impose future weight restrictions on the bridge if the aging deck continues to deteriorate.  That would have a big impact on major employers shipping raw materials in and finished products out.  About 7,500 vehicles cross the bridge daily.  Many on those are local people doing business and residents who live in one state and work in the other.
Four million dollars is a lot of money for MODOT when it already faces an urgent demand for up to $500 million of what are called "essential" repairs.  Gilster Mary Lee President Welge asks, "What would it take to rebuild the bridge if it wasn't there?"  He was told about $250 million. 
"We're really talking about less than two percent of the value of the bridge," he said.
Perryville and Chester are upbeat about getting on Missouri's Five Year Building Plan or even getting the work done sooner.  Their task force meeting was attended by representatives of Senators Kit Bond (R MO) and Dick Durbin (D Ill)  and US Representatives Jo Ann Emerson (R MO) and Jerry Costello (D Ill).