Southwest Illinois taking lead in public-private infrastructure funding

By Bob Pieper For Chronicle Media

Artist’s rendering of the proposed new Merchant’s Railroad Bridge (Image courtesy of Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis)

In the shadow of the Gateway Arch — which a half century ago helped to establish the modern model for the financing of public works — Metro East leaders say a pair of key redevelopment projects may now be helping to launch a new era in infrastructure financing; with private-sector businesses called on to foot a portion of the bill.

Even as President Donald Trump was formally announcing plans for a new public-private partnership infrastructure program, during his Jan. 30 State of the Union Address, a public-private funding plan for the replacement of the Merchant’s Bridge across the Mississippi River was already awaiting federal approval.

Phase 1 construction in East St. Louis’ new River Bridge District —jointly funded by the federal government, the State of Illinois, St. Clair County and local businesses — is already nearing completion.

And more such jointly sponsored public works projects are already anticipated around the Metro East region.

“The $200 million Merchants Rail Bridge Replacement over the Mississippi River is a model for public-private partnerships,” the Bi-State Development Agency proclaimed in submitting its funding proposal last year to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).

Under the Merchant’s Bridge plan, the Terminal Railroad Association (TRRA) of St. Louis will fund nearly two-thirds of the cost of the bridge replacement.

The TRRA would directly cover $40 million or 20 percent of the bridge replacement cost out of its own coffers. The USDOT would issue a $75 million grant to Bi-State and the Missouri Department of Transportation to cover another 37.5 percent. The TRRA would use an $85 million USDOT Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan to cover the final 42.5 percent.

“TRRA is not restricted to the RRIF loan and has other available financing options if required,” the proposal notes.

Look at the new Mississippi River bridge and East St. Louis River Bridge District improvements. (Image courtesy of INHS)

The TRRA is switching and terminal railroad that handles freight train traffic in the railyards of St. Louis and Metro East. It is jointly owned by the five Class I railroads [BNSF, Canadian National Railway (formerly the Illinois Central Railroad), CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific] that serve the region.

The Marchant’s Bridge proposal coincides with funding requirements of the USDOT’s new $1.5 billion Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant program, project planners say. The INFRA program was announced June 29,2017, by Secretary Elaine L. Chao, specifically to encourage public-private funding of infrastructure projects. It represents a revision of the 2015 FAST Act infrastructure funding implemented under the Obama Administration.

Typically, under FAST and other traditional infrastructure funding programs, the federal government agrees to fund around 75 percent of project costs, with state government expected to provide around 15 percent and local government around 10 percent. The Interstate Highway System was built with a mix of 90 percent Federal Highway Administration funds and 10 percent matching shares from state transportation departments. The Gateway Arch represents one of the first instances in which the federal government required a local matching share for a monument. However, until now, private funding has seldom been solicited for public infrastructure.

The Bi-State Development Agency hopes to see its INFRA grant approved later this year. According to initial estimates, replacement of the Merchant’s Bridge could then be completed as early as 2021.

Meanwhile, the first phase of East St. Louis’ River Bridge infrastructure improvement project is already 85 percent completed, according to the St. Clair County Department of Economic Development. The $8.1 million widening and reconstruction of Front Street, is being funded with $3.5 million from The U.S. Department of Commerce, $1.5 million from The Southwest Illinois Development Authority, $125,000 from the Illinois Department of Transportation, $900,000 from the St. Clair County Transit District, and $500,00 from the Metro East Park and Recreation District. The three large businesses with facilities along the street — Cargill, Bunge-SCF and the Casino Queen — are each contributing $500,000.

Map of the Southwest Illinois Connector four-lane highway

The USDOT last month proposed draft rules for a greatly expanded version of the INFRA program. Among those eagerly awaiting finalized rules for the new federal infrastructure program are backers of a proposed new Southwest Illinois Connector highway from Murphysboro to Waterloo.

State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) on Friday (Feb. 9) introduced authorizing legislation in the Illinois General Assembly for a task force to study the proposed four-lane highway.

Both 12th District U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R) of Murphysboro, and his leading Democratic challenger in the 2018 election cycle, St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly of Belleville, support the project.

Previously promoted under various names, including the Southwest Illinois Tollway, the highway has been proposed repeatedly by area business and political leaders over the past 50 years (in 1967, 1976, 1986, 1995 and again in 1996).

However, an ad hoc group, known as the Four County Highway Coalition last year announced they would make another attempted to launch highway project, citing the availability of FAST Act funding and a need to spur the local economy.

The coalition voted to adopt the Southwest Illinois Connector moniker for the roadway during the latest in an ongoing series of public meetings on the proposal, Jan. 23 in Pinckneyville.

During that meeting, both U.S. Rep. Bost, reporting by telephone, and State Sen. Schimpf acknowledged the connector proposal is getting mixed responses from state and federal officials and funding poses a problem.

However, Rep. Bost said the Trump administration infrastructure plan could represent “a lever to push forward.”

The Four County Highway Commission’s next public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 27, at 9 a.m., in the Murphysboro City Council Chambers.






— Southwest Illinois taking lead in public-private infrastructure funding   —-