SIKESTON -- In a way, those who died in the Minneapolis bridge collapse are heroes. From the tragedy, the condition of bridges all over the country was under the microscope.
"The loss of their lives has shined a light on the bridge situation in our area," Sikeston Mayor Mike Marshall said at the bridge summit Tuesday evening, after calling for a moment of silence to remember those victims. "But it is no secret that we wanted a new bridge in our area for awhile."
More than 150 people met to discuss the situation of the bridges that connect Missouri and Kentucky near Cairo, Ill., at the Clinton Community Building. City, county and state officials from the Missouri and Kentucky areas were there, as well as concerned residents, chiefly from Mississippi County. The group learned about the bridge, shared and listened to ideas and began the process of building a new bridge.
"I'm not going to apologize for not having enough seating," said Michael Jensen, who served as moderator, to the standing-room-only crowd. "We're really pleased with the crowd tonight."
During a slide show, the audience learned the bridge was built in 1929 and designed for vehicles of that era, as well as animal and foot traffic. "You were just as likely to see horse and buggy or people walking across that bridge as you were to see a car or truck," Marshall pointed out. The deck width is about 20 feet; and semi-trucks measure about 10 feet wide, he added.
According to the National Bridges Inventory, the bridge on U.S. 60 in Missouri is at the top of a list of the 10 lowest sufficiency ratings on the Mississippi between Minneapolis and New Orleans. It has a sufficiency rating of 18 percent.
"If that doesn't tell you that we need a new bridge, I don't know what does," Marshall said. "It's time to explore options and it's time to make this a priority."
The summit was designed to make the endeavor for a new bridge an active one. At the end of the meeting, people could sign up to serve on action committees, to start "putting pencil on paper for the things we need to do," Jensen said. Nearly 30 people signed up to be involved.
As bridges are important for the economy, it's vital that city, county, state and federal governments get involved and cooperate with one another, Marshall and Jensen pointed out.
Leaders from those levels, as well as company representatives, were each given the floor to discuss their plans, ideas and perspectives.
"If I understand it correctly, this is the only location in the United States where two states share a common border and there is no bridge directly connecting them," said Kentucky state representative J.R. Gray. He said he supports the project, especially as a route for the still-developing Interstate 66 which will come across Kentucky .
A member of the house transportation committee there, Gray said he thinks the entire legislature will support the initiative for a new bridge.
Lanie Black, a former Missouri state representative, asked those in the room to raise their hands if they would vote for a tax increase in order to build the bridge. "Remember that you held your hand up," he advised them after most in the room raised their hands.
He warned of the costs associated in building the bridge and said neither state's department of transportation has the money to maintain current roads, let alone build a new bridge. He also spoke of other challenges, such as the location and how to work around the floodway in Mississippi County.
"Kentucky is in the driver's seat -- I-66 will determine where the bridge is," Black said.
He also noted that the bridge will be important for economic development, something echoed by several other speakers.
For instance, Donnie Brown, the mayor of New Madrid, spoke of all the trees harvested in the area and then driven to Wickliffe, Ky., to be processed in the paper mill.
As a certified engineer, he highlighted the need to get the ball rolling, since there will be five years of studies before construction can begin. "That number is going to do nothing but go down," Brown said of the sufficiency rating. "We don't have any time to waste."
Lloyd Smith, from U.S. Representative JoAnn Emerson's office, read a statement highlighting Emerson's willingness to help in the initiative, citing safety concerns as well as benefits for the economy and commerce. She, along with other Missouri legislators, have requested and received federal funds to begin a five-year study for the best site and corridor for a new bridge, he reported.
On Monday, Emerson wrote a letter to James B. Anderson, chair of the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission. In it she highlighted how the bridge is a vital connection to Illinois and then western Kentucky , as well as the sufficiency ratings.
"The sufficiency rating for the Highway 60 bridge is the lowest over the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Memphis, meaning there are severe safety issues as we consider the future of this transportation corridor," Emerson said in a prepared news release. "I am asking the
Missouri Department of Transportation to be an active participant in making the replacement of the bridge a priority, and I'm confident they will be a valuable partner in moving this important project forward."
Representatives from Noranda Aluminum Co., Pullen Brothers Trucking and Burch Food Services spoke of the dangers the bridge presents to their respective businesses.
Trucking is a concern for all. "Anywhere I've been in the United States across bridges, this is probably the worst one I've ever crossed," said Jerry Pullen, owner of Pullen Brothers. "When two trucks are together on the bridge, their tires are hugging the rail and you probably have a foot between the two trucks across the bridge."
Pullen said he would gladly support a tax to pay for a new bridge, "because I pay enough in mirrors every year."
Some businesses have banned trucks from crossing the bridges, such as Burch Foods, due to the safety issues. "We go 22 miles out of the way each day to bypass the bridge," said Bill Burch, adding extra costs include time, mileage and other expenses. "We desperately need that bridge."
And in some cases, it can discourage new business, too. Keith Gregston of Noranda noted other companies "are always leery of driving a big truck across that bridge. It's a hazard they don't want to inflict on their trucks or employees."
Mark Shelton, a district engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation, also attended the meeting. Although he didn't address the crowd, he later said he thought the event went well and was positive. "There was a unity in wanting a new bridge and wanting to find a way to fund it," he said. "And the challenge is going to be the funding -- from a MoDOT perspective, we certainly don't have the funding."