Iron Workers Locals 396 and 392 split work on reconstruction of vital rail span
By TIM ROWDEN
Granite City, IL – A grand opening of the $222 million rebuilt historic Merchants Bridge that links Missouri and Illinois near downtown St. Louis was held Sept. 15 at the South Harbor of America’s Central Port after the third and final bridge truss for the bridge was floated into place and installed Aug. 26 and 27.
Iron Workers Local 396 in St. Louis and Local 392 in East St. Louis split work on the project by Walsh Construction.
“Whenever we work over the river like that it’s always 50/50 with Local 392 in East St. Louis and Local 396 in St. Louis,” said Local 396 Business Manager Mike Heibeck.
“It’s been an historic project because each section of the bridge weighs approximately nine million pounds and they are set into place in one pick,” Heibeck said. “There are three main sections to the bridge that were built just down river north of the Stan Musial and McKinley bridges. When each section is completed they are floated upriver on barges to be ready for installation. It takes a special Ironworker to work on a bridge project. It is usually very hard and dangerous work when working over the river.”
“This is a major project for transportation of the goods across the country,” said John Schmitt, business manager for Local 392. “The project took over two years, with 75,000 work-hours workers, but probably around 100,000 paid with overtime. They worked Saturdays and Sundays, a lot of 10-hour days with no lost time accidents for the ironworkers. That’s a huge thing, maintaining safety on these big projects.”
ONE OF THE LARGEST RAIL HUBS
Dating back to the 1890s, the Merchants Bridge spans the Mississippi River and is among the U.S.’s primary east-west rail corridors serving one of the largest rail hubs, as measured by car interchange volume and gross tonnage. It serves six Class I railroads and Amtrak. Replacement of the structure has been the bi-state St. Louis region’s top freight infrastructure priority since 2016.
Owned by Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis (TRRA), the Merchants Bridge required reconstruction due to speed, clearance and load restrictions. The overall project included removal and replacement of the three river-span trusses, seismically retrofitting the existing river piers, and improving the east approach. Work began in 2018 and, when completed in the coming weeks, the new double-track span “will provide reliable, resilient and expanded freight and passenger rail capacity, helping move freight faster, cost-effectively and more reliably, providing an alternative to more congested rail hubs like Chicago,” TRRA said.
‘MODEL FOR PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP’
The replacement of the Merchants Bridge has been identified each year for the past several years as the region’s top freight infrastructure priority by the St. Louis Regional Freightway, which is nationally recognized for its innovative and collaborative approach to creating a Priority Projects List that identifies key infrastructure projects and advocates for funding for them, the agency said. In 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded TRRA a $21.45 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant toward replacement of the Merchants Bridge. TRRA is providing 90 percent of the construction costs, making the project a model for public-private partnerships.
“In TRRA’s 133-year history helping to ensure the smooth movement of rail freight, our company has never built a bridge, but we’re marking a critical milestone in the final steps to deliver our first major bridge infrastructure project — a project that will dramatically improve the flow of both freight and passenger rail traffic through the bi-state St. Louis region,” said TRRA Chief Legal Officer and Director of Corporate Affairs Asim Raza.
‘OUR HIGHEST PRIORITY’
“The Merchants Bridge has been our highest priority project because of its significance in the nation’s freight network,” said Executive Vice President Multi Modal Enterprises, Bi-State Development Mary Lamie. The agency launched the St. Louis Regional Freightway in 2014 to advance infrastructure projects that support the movement of freight through the bi-state St. Louis region. “Its completion will not only strengthen a vital link in the nation’s freight network, but it also reaffirms we are on the right path with our approach,” she said.