The Merchant of Venice

The McKinley Bridge is broke — structurally and financially — and everyone wants it fixed. Trouble is, Mayor Tyrone Echols of Venice isn't about to give away the city's bridge. But he could be talked into trading it.

On the locomotives that trundled on the lines, the boxcars were loaded with cargo and the train cars carried the rich and the rest in style: "formal wicker seats and leather slipcovers, mahogany woodwork, even a brass, urn-shaped spittoon at the far end of the aisle," according to another published report.

Named after William Brown McKinley, the railroad magnate and head of Illinois Terminal (and not after the assassinated president), the bridge only carried trains on the two lines that ran inside the truss. In the 1930s, as the nation began its swift drive toward becoming an automobile-based society, the two outside lanes were added to accommodate cars and trucks.

And then the city of Venice made a fateful decision. In 1958, when railroad traffic had begun to diminish and the highways picked up the slack, Illinois Terminal wanted to sell the bridge and the city bought it, expecting that the toll income would prove profitable. The city used two bond series — $11.9 million and $11 million — to finance the purchase. The first series was paid off in 1988, but the city defaulted last fall on the second series and — after refinancing the debt at a higher interest rate for another 10 years — still owes $4.2 million of the original amount.

Tolltaker Derrick Williams is a five-year veteran of toll collections, which brought in $2.2 million last year. The money still isn't enough to cover operations, maintenance and debt payments.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tolltaker Derrick Williams is a five-year veteran of toll collections, which brought in $2.2 million last year. The money still isn't enough to cover operations, maintenance and debt payments.
The AmerenUE power plant on the Venice riverfront was built in the 1940s and dislocated hundreds of black families. Last year, a $5 million reduction in the plant's tax assessment meant fewer tax dollars for the impoverished city and its schools.
Jennifer Silverberg
The AmerenUE power plant on the Venice riverfront was built in the 1940s and dislocated hundreds of black families. Last year, a $5 million reduction in the plant's tax assessment meant fewer tax dollars for the impoverished city and its schools.

For the last 40 years, the toll bridge has been managed by what amounts to an independent city agency, with no funds flowing from the bridge into city coffers or vice versa. In short, the toll revenues ($2.2 million last year) go toward maintenance, repair and paying the 20-person bridge crew of tolltakers and repairmen, with not enough money to pay taxes and retire bonds. Contrary to 1958 expectations, the city makes no profit.

And now the delinquent-tax crisis, not to mention the prospect of the bridge's being sold at auction, has prompted a bi-state task force of transportation, political and business leaders to resolve the money and structural problems. At the task force's first meeting last week, no one proposed shutting down McKinley as an option. It was explicitly stated several times that the metropolitan area cannot afford to lose the McKinley Bridge, even though — at 13,000 vehicle crossings a day — it is the least traveled of the three automobile bridges connecting the Metro East to downtown St. Louis.

The most obvious solution is for one or both states to pay off the taxes and the remaining debt, take ownership of the bridge, repair it and operate it as a free bridge like all the rest.

But Mayor Echols, a diminutive and spry 62-year-old who has held his post for 20 years, isn't about to simply hand over ownership of the bridge. "This is a poor little black town, and the bridge is the only asset it has," says Echols. "I'm not going to be the mayor that gives the bridge away."

And so the mayor tries to link the fates of the 90-year-old bridge and the 200-year-old river town. The bridge crisis has garnered the attention of the region because the bridge is recognized by civic and business leaders as an essential part of the region's infrastructure and valuable to the area's economy. And it is generally agreed that the bridge needs — and must be provided — a multimillion-dollar shot in the arm.

No such consensus exists regarding the fate of the city of Venice.

And Echols cannot morph the political and business leaders' concern about the bridge into a concern about the city and its residents. Echols — who freely acknowledges that if the current decline in tax revenue continues, it may force the city to disincorporate in a few years — is hoping that the bridge may provide some hope for the city.

The way Echols sees it, if the civic and business leaders' solution is to pay off the debts, fix the bridge and take ownership away from Venice, there ought to be something in it for the city.

"If it came to a point of change of ownership, then we're in the market," he says. "The indebtedness should be removed — the bondholders, the taxes. And there should be an equity settlement with the city for holding it for 40 years and operating it. Otherwise, I don't see where it has been a benefit to us whatsoever. Or else, if not an equity settlement, there should be a revenue stream established that trickles into here and that's worth something. That should be considered.

"I'm only speaking for myself when I say that," he adds, emphasizing that he has not consulted on that point with the city's aldermen or the voters. "But I don't think it is a situation where we just walk away and say, "Thanks.' I think that a poor community such as this should benefit from it."

The odds are clearly not in Venice's favor.

Born in Memphis, Echols moved with his parents up to St. Louis in the mid-1940s like many other black families from points south, settling in along the riverfront across from St. Louis — in Venice, and in Brooklyn and East St. Louis as well. Most blacks then lived closer to the river, hauling their own wood, sometimes simply claiming a piece of ground and building a shack.

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