Political fracas on St. Louis County Council tying up millions in infrastructure improvements

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UNSAFE PASSAGE: Temporary repairs to the Lewis Road bridge won’t last forever, creating serious concerns for Eureka Fire Chief Greg Brown, who is hesitant to send equipment across. The Missouri Department of Transportation gives the bridge a “two percent sufficiency” rating; 0 indicates the bridge is failing and should be closed. – West newsmagazine photo, April 19, 2017

Eureka, Mo – Despite the plea of the city’s fire chief that he’s concerned about his fire equipment and fire fighters crossing a deteriorating bridge here, politics between two factions on the St. Louis County Council is creating what could become a major disaster and it has raised the concerns of the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council.

Two bridges are the focus of the issue: the crumbling Lewis and Allen Road bridges near Eureka, both built by the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1930. In addition to the public’s constant use of the bridges, railroad cars pass under them often carry highly flammable and toxic materials, creating what could become a horrendous disaster should there be a collapse.

At a recent Council meeting, Eureka Fire Chief Greg Brown urged the council to move forward quickly repairing the two bridges “before something really bad happens.”

BRIDGES NEAR FAILURE

To reinforce the chief’s point, the Missouri Department of Transportation has given the Lewis Road Bridge a “sufficiency rating” of two percent and the Allen Road Bridge a rating of 17.2 percent. At a rating of 100 a bridge is absolutely safe; a 0 indicates the bridge is failing and should be closed.

However, a political dispute aligning four council members – three Democrats and one Republican – against the three other members – one Democrat and two Republicans – has stalled the projects to the concern of not only County Executive Steve Stenger but also the Building Trades Council.

WORK THAT NEEDS TO GET DONE

For County Executive Stenger the issue is public safety; for the Building Trades Council, it’s not only public safety but also work for construction workers, impacting jobs and workers’ paychecks.

“There’s a lot of roads and bridges and infrastructure that County Executive Steve Stenger wants to get going that will not only improve conditions for everyone on the road, but will put a lot of our trades men and women to work,” said John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council.

“We’re having serious concerns that some members of County Council are apparently holding these and other projects hostage to a political fight.”

The recalcitrant Council members involved are Democrats Rochelle Walton-Gray, Hazel Erby and Sam Page and Republican Ernie Trakas.

MILLIONS OF $$$ IN IMPROVEMENTS TIED UP

Shannon Weber, Stenger’s legislative affairs coordinator, visited the Building Trades Council last week to explain the facts behind the bridge delays, which she said is now tying up other proposed improvements to bridges, parks and roads in the county.

The fracas has tied up millions of dollars of proposed construction, and recently resulted in the false allegation that the estimated $2.5 million Lewis Road bridge replacement was only being considered to benefit a political donor of Stenger’s who has a home that is serviced by the Lewis Road Bridge.

In fact, Weber pointed out, the county’s Transportation Department under former County Executive Charles Dooley put the bridge on the county’s five-year capital improvement plan in 2013 because it was unsafe. Stenger wasn’t elected County Executive until 2015, factually refuting the “political donor” argument.

HOW IT STARTED

The fracture on the council didn’t start with the bridge work but grew over two unrelated issues:

• The proposed multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the former Jamestown Mall where Gray, a former state legislator who unseated former Councilman Mike O’Mara (Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562), filed a bill to remove decisions on the future of the mall property from the county’s Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) and place oversight with the council – specifically with herself, in whose district the mall property is located.

The county’s lawyer ruled that the LCRA had the legal right to oversee the project. Gray presented an opposing opinion drafted by her father, former state Representative Elbert Walton Jr. That opinion was rejected and her amended legislation was defeated.

• The hiring of a new county auditor by a council majority that Stenger and several other councilmen felt did not have the required qualifications and experience. Stenger turned the issue over to the county’s prosecutor’s office for investigation. It’s still pending.

Some see the auditor’s issue as the last straw and that, in holding up the bridge projects, there is “political retribution” at play.

Stenger has recommended asking Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway to audit the council’s process for awarding road and bridge contracts.

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Attend Tuesday’s Council meeting; make a call

Members of the St. Louis construction industry, workers, leaders and business executives, should make it clear to the St. Louis County Council that politics should not play a role in decision-making when public safety and jobs are at stake.

The St. Louis Building Trades Council is urging its affiliates and their members to visit the St. Louis County Council meeting Tuesday, June 20 at 6 p.m. at the County Government Center, at 41 S. Central Ave. in Clayton, to urge all council members put politics aside and move forward with the Allen and Lewis Road bridge projects.

“Let them know you expect them to protect all who travel on the county’s roads and bridges and preserve public safety,” said John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council. “The holdup on these bridges appears to be purely political, and it’s very disappointing.”

For those who cannot attend, Stiffler urged a phone call to the following council members to express your concern:

• District 1 - Councilwoman Hazel Erby, 314-615-5436.

• District 2 - Councilman Sam Page, 314-615-5437.

• District 4 -  Councilwoman Rochelle Walton-Gray – 314-615-0393.

• District 6 -  Councilman Ernie Trakas – 314-615-5442.

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