It's been a while now since talk of a new bridge spanning the Mississippi near Charleston has been in the spotlight. That doesn't mean the subject is forgotten nor does it mean that efforts are not continuing between the states and communities involved. But the lack of discussion does illustrate one thing - the prospect for a new bridge in this region is a marathon, not a sprint. If anyone expects action in the next decade, it's just wishful thinking.
We have to look no farther than the announcement Friday in St. Louis of plans for a new bridge there. The governors of both Missouri and Illinois signed a deal this week that would construct a $640 million, four-lane bridge near downtown St. Louis. Discussions on that span began in 1991. The bridge should be completed by around 2015. You do the math!
Don't misunderstand - the bridge in St. Louis has no connection with the proposed bridge in our region. But one of the aspects that drove the agreement this week was the massive amount of traffic projected for the St. Louis bridge. No such claim can be made for our regional bridge plan. The importance of this proposed regional bridge cannot be overlooked but we have to make our argument for funding based on some aspect other than traffic count. If we hinge our hopes on traffic count, this regional bridge will never become a reality. It's just that simple.
If communities along the proposed bridge corridor are waiting for a new bridge to help solve their sluggish economies, they need to rethink their plan. Far into the future this proposed bridge in our area could indeed provide some major benefits. And I believe someday it will. But the decline in these communities will far outpace the process of constructing a bridge and community leaders need to accept that reality. And once accepted, they need to address today's problems today and not rely on some far-distant project to inject some boost to local economies.
Sikeston has taken the lead toward promoting discussion on a proposed bridge in our region. And well we should since we stand to be a major beneficiary of such a project. There has also been a willingness from other communities, other congressional districts and other states to embrace a bridge proposal. But the key to such a substantial project is always about funding. And given the current and projected state of the economy, selling the importance of the bridge becomes even more difficult.
I was struck by just how much money the two states are committing to the St. Louis bridge. Illinois is going to contribute over $300 million and Missouri over $70 million. The remainder will come from the feds.
I most certainly don't get the impression that Kentucky and Missouri have the same level of generosity toward a bridge in our region. And, in some ways, it's hard to fault their argument.
Sikeston officials - along with others from Missouri and Kentucky - are now putting their eggs in the "safety' basket. The bridge at Cairo is ancient, in need of substantial repairs and nearing the end of its useful life. But the reality is we may have to wait for the bridge to fail all inspections before the talks resume in substance.
In the meantime, I repeat what I have argued from the very beginning. We cannot wait for a bridge to solve our problems. If we wait, our problems will overwhelm us and the construction of a bridge will be too late.