A group of area businessmen and elected officials met in Jefferson City last week with the goal of addressing the economic impact of the Chester Bridge.
State representatives Rick Francis (R-Perryville) and Dale Wright (R-Farmington) organized the meeting with Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna, and included representatives from TG Missouri, Gilster Mary-Lee and Con Agra.
Those three companies are among the worst hit when flooding forces the closure of the only Mississippi River crossing between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau.
“This last flooding and closing of the bridge cost an estimated $1.1 million to just those three companies,” said Wright, whose district incorporates northern Perry County, along with Madison and St. Francois. “The Chester Bridge is one of many bridges throughout Missouri that needs to be replaced to better serve Missouri families, workers, and businesses.”
MoDOT, which has rated the nearly 80-year-old bridge as functionally obsolete and in poor structural condition with grades of 4 out of 9 in three categories, including deck condition, superstructure and substructure, commissioned an Environmental Study in 2017 to determine the best option for replacing or repairing the aging structure.
That study, completed last year, identified a “preferred alternative” for the project — a new replacement bridge that would be constructed approximately 75 feet upstream of the current bridge.
That new bridge would incorporate a new approach from Hwy. 51 over the Horse Island Chute and raising the bridge above the levee.
As it stands now, Hwy. 51 cuts through the levee to connect to the existing Horse Island Chute Bridge, meaning that once the river level is projected to reach 45 feet, the road is closed and a flood gate put in place, shutting down traffic across the Chester Bridge.
That happened this year on June 2, and the bridge remained closed for nearly three weeks. The June 2 closing was the third time in six years that the Chester Bridge has been closed because of flooding.
According to data collected during the environmental study, approximately 6,700 vehicles use the Chester Bridge daily. With the bridge closed, that traffic has to divert nearly 80 miles north to the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in St. Louis or nearly 50 miles south to the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau, resulting in hours of added time.
That can be troublesome to companies like TG, Gilster and Con Agra, who lose thousands of dollars a day to extra personnel and fuel costs. Add in the many smaller companies, farmers and other businesses, and the impact becomes devastating.
According to estimations by Perry County presiding commissioner Mike Sauer, who attended the meeting along with commissioners Jay Wengert and Jim Sutterer, that impact on the area could reach as high as $700,000 a day.
“I took a little bit bigger sample,” Sauer said. “Look at trucking. You’ve got Beelman, Rollet Brothers, Buchheit, UPS, FedEx — I ended up with a list of like 20 different trucking companies. And then I went and started talking to farmers. They couldn’t haul their grain over to Illinois like a lot of them do. The county had to have its trash hauled all the way around. The thing just kept snowballing on me.”
MoDOT has put the Chester Bridge replacement on the schedule for 2026. Ahead of the Chester Bridge is the Chain of Rocks Bridge on Interstate 270 on the north side of St. Louis, in which Illinois’ Department of Transportation has more interest.
Francis said that decision is a frustrating one, but in the end, it comes down to money — largely on the Missouri side of the transaction.
“The bottom line is, the Chester Bridge is going to cost $135 million,” Francis said. “Because Missouri has a little more extensive work to do because of the Horse Island bridge, our total is going to be around 55 percent of the project. We’ve got to have $75 million.”
Earlier this year, state legislature approved a $301 million bonding plan to pay for construction and repair of bridges on the state highway system. The southeast Missouri region will receive $27 million.
“When you need $75 million and you only have $27 million, that’s a problem,” Francis said.
Others who attended the meeting were Perry County Economic Development director Scott Sattler, Gilster-Mary Lee president Don Welge, Gilster-Mary Lee human resources director Rob Welge, TG Missouri general manager Rhonda Ruark, Southeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission director Jeremy Tanz, Ste. Genevieve County Economic Development director Sandra Cabot and Marcus Genova of Holcim, Inc., of Ste. Genevieve.
Perryville city administrator Brent Buerck, who attended the meeting along with mayor Ken Baer, called the situation frustrating, but understandable.
“I thought the meeting was good,” Buerck said. “[McKenna] understands the bridge and the length of the detour and he understands it’s importance in a rural community. Money is an issue. You can only use what you’ve been given to spend. We’re scheduled in the future and it’s not as fast as we had hoped, but MoDOT hasn’t forgotten us either. They’re doing what they can, I believe, to make sure it happens.”