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.

Someone raised the question of getting the city of St. Louis to simply forgive the taxes. It was pointed out that the taxes go to several taxing bodies besides the city, including a big chunk to the public schools.

As for Harmon offering to forgive the taxes, Villa said, it would have to be done against Villa's counsel. "My recommendation to Mayor Harmon is that it's political suicide to forgive the debt. My advice to the mayor would be "No' — which means he will do exactly the opposite," he said, prompting the only lighthearted moment of the 90-minute meeting.

The idea was tossed out that perhaps the task force should put forth legislation in both states to create a "Midwest compact" that neither state will assess taxes on a state- or local-government-owned bridge or other property. That might at least eliminate future obligations, if not the past ones.

Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols looks out at the railroad yards. Not only were the railroads a big part of the city's history, they built the McKinley Bridge.
Jennifer Silverberg
Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols looks out at the railroad yards. Not only were the railroads a big part of the city's history, they built the McKinley Bridge.

In any case, the $750,000 in delinquent taxes to St. Louis must be paid off, and there's no money in the bridge funds to pay that tab. However, there is $600,000 in the bridge fund to pay for engineering-design work for the $12 million rehab IDOT is ready to do. If that money is diverted to pay the delinquent St. Louis taxes, the $12 million rehab won't happen, which means the bridge will fall apart in two to five years.

"It's the best Catch-22 since the book itself," says Fields. "If we pay the taxes, we lose the ($12 million) grant. If we keep the grant, we lose the project because of the taxes."

While all the options were laid out on the table, no word was said as to who would put up the $750,000 and whether they would demand bridge ownership in return. All the parties represented at the table would take the proposal back to their respective agencies — and presumably negotiate — and meet again in 30 days to hash out the answer.

The meeting made it clear that the solution would have to be a financial as well as a political one. And Echols was well aware of this. Right after the meeting, he seemed a bit cheerful and defiant.

"It's a bullfight!" he said with a grin. "And I got the bull by the horns. I'm wrestling that bull."

In an office that was in Venice's heyday a gambling joint, Tom Fields sits at a long wooden table with a lamp, in a room large enough to serve as the bridge office both for administrators and for maintenance crews. As for how the bridge fund got into such a mess, Fields calmly explains it: The decline in bridge traffic over the years has essentially reduced its income, while at the same time repair and maintenance costs have increased. When the Interstate 270 bridge was built, "it sucked traffic right out of here, because it was a free bridge," Fields says. "Then the Poplar Street Bridge came in, and things started to get wobbly for everybody. It eventually closed the Chain of Rocks Bridge and did severe damage to the MLK Bridge."

Then came the flood of '93, when the McKinley had to be closed for 10 days. The "unintended consequence" of that closing was that 1,000-2,000 of the daily McKinley commuters never returned to use the bridge. Then the MetroLink station, with its park-and-ride lot in East St. Louis, opened, siphoning off some more commuters.

The bridge also took a financial hit in 1988, when the Illinois Terminal Railroad stopped paying the bridge $250,000 a year — money it had agreed to pay for 40 years as part of the bridge sale and lease agreement in 1958. Even though the trains stopped running on the McKinley Bridge in 1978, the railroad lived up to its obligation until 1998.

Meanwhile, the bridge wasn't getting any younger. "We started to see a severe deterioration in the condition of the bridge, and it kept getting worse and worse, and as the condition of the bridge worsened, you chased traffic away," Fields says. "And people were just voting with their steering wheel and steering away from us. That began the nosedive in traffic. And up to then we were current with our (debt) obligations — after that, we never caught up."

His figures show that last year, the bridge had 4.2 million crossings and about the same in '97, bringing in about $2.25 million in total revenue each year. This year, Fields estimates, the bridge will have about 3.9 million crossings and less than $1.9 million in revenue. Almost all of that money is needed to pay the 20-person crew of tolltakers and maintenance and administrative employees and to pay for a $40,000-a-month contract with the J. Alberici Co. for the heavier steel repair jobs.

As for retiring the bonds, when the bridge, as a city agency, defaulted last fall on the second $11 million bond series, Fields helped negotiate a 10-year deal at 6 percent interest — triple the 2 percent rate that was in place — and is hopeful that if the $12 million rehab is done, the bridge can retire its debts by 2008.

"We should be paying about $1 million a year, but we haven't been able to do any more than a maximum of $200,000," says Fields.

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