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.

Driving back on the street again, he casually relates that two of his sons were involved with drugs and that one is in jail right now on a crack-possession conviction. "I think the crack problem isn't going down much," he adds. "I think there are more crack addicts now than there were a few years ago."

The large, modern conference room was filling up a few minutes before 9 a.m. last Wednesday as men in suits gathered and took their seats around the square table setup. They represented government agencies, mayors, politicians and civic groups that had come together at the downtown St. Louis offices of the East- West Gateway Coordinating Council, the regional transportation-planning agency. It was the first meeting of the McKinley Bridge Task Force.

It was as if the elders of the village had been convened to figure out a rehab program for the town delinquent.

The unquestioned assumption in the room was that McKinley Bridge must remain open at all costs and fixed up to last at least another 15-30 years. Even after a planned $500 million bridge is opened to the south of McKinley in 15 years, the traffic projections require that McKinley remain open.

"It's not a problem for the city of Venice, and it's not a problem for Madison County," Les Sterman, executive director of East-West Gateway, told the 21 men gathered. "It's a regional problem."

He also reminded them that the Martin Luther King Bridge "was at the same point 10 years ago," implying that a similar plan might work this time. In that case, the MLK Bridge was owned by East St. Louis and in dire straits, financially and structurally. The two states stepped in, bailed the bridge out, spent $50 million to repair it and took ownership of the bridge away from East St. Louis.

Implicit in the task force's formation was the reality that the city of Venice doesn't have the resources to do the job. No one broached the subject of bridge ownership, even though everyone knew that to be the toughest question.

Jim Easterly, the district engineer from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), said his agency had already set aside $12.4 million in state and federal money to rehab the western portion of the McKinley Bridge and that the money will be lost if it is not committed by next June. If Missouri — or any private entity — were to buy the bridge, the money could not be used, Easterly said. And IDOT strongly feels that the bridge is needed, he said. "We agree that the bridge is of critical importance to the region," he said. "We feel that it's important to take care of what we've got."

That wasn't the message relayed by his Missouri counterpart, Steve Knobbe of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). As politely as he could, Knobbe told the group that his agency wasn't about to lift a finger to fix the bridge or bail it out. "Initially, there's a reluctance on the state's part to consider any assistance for this project," he said, noting that the highway commissioners feel they have "limited resources." Fortunately for him, no one asked about MoDOT's $1 billion annual budget or about its controversial idea to spend $14 billion on a 15-year plan to connect every Missouri town of 5,000 or more with a four-lane highway, needed or not.

But Rudy Papa, chairman of both East-West Gateway and the Madison County Board, as well as the convener of the task force, did say, "That makes me sad that the commission takes that point of view — you relay that message to the commission." Knobbe nodded.

The East-West Gateway staff presented a slide show, explaining the financial realities and possible options. It was clear that the immediate crisis was prompted by St. Louis' threat that the bridge would be auctioned if the delinquent taxes aren't paid. After writing the $57,951 check to avert the auction, Venice still owes St. Louis $750,000 in taxes dating back to '93. This raised the obvious question: Why does St. Louis assess taxes on a municipally owned bridge when neither Madison County, nor the state of Illinois, nor the feds assess any taxes?

Well, there's the tit-for-tat answer: When St. Louis owned and operated the MacArthur Bridge (now shut down), Illinois assessed taxes.

Or there's the more benevolent answer: St. Louis only taxes it because it's a toll bridge and the taxes are based on the toll amounts collected.

Both answers are right, of course. But Tom Villa, the former St. Louis aldermanic president and mayoral candidate who was at the meeting representing St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, deflected the question by saying the mayor did not make the decision about the taxes or the auction or anything. It was Revenue Collector Ron Leggett's action, based upon what the law calls for in dealing with delinquent taxes, Villa said.

Also, he added, the city owns plenty of derelict properties and isn't at all interested in owning the bridge. "I think our Land Reclamation Authority right now owns thousands of vacant lots, a partridge in a pear tree and no bridge," and the city would rather not change that, Villa told the task force.

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