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.

In the nine decades since its completion in 1910, the McKinley Bridge has had its share of unusual events. Hundreds of yellowed and frayed newspaper clips and other documents in St. Louis-area libraries tell the tales: an 18-year-old woman, depressed about her life, jumps off the bridge but survives; a high-diver wins a $20 bet by diving off the bridge at night, although he has to "dry off at the Venice police station"; a 31-year-old woman starts a fire in her backseat, then repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — tries to drive the car off the bridge; a couple crash their car on the bridge at night and get out, then slip through "a two-foot-wide space between a girder and railroad tracks," falling 60 feet to their deaths; a 10-year old boy tries to climb the bridge, then freezes, 50 feet up in the air, until police rescue him.

More recently, an unusual event has been the arrival of the two falcons.

For some years now, the same two falcons have come each March during the breeding season and built a sparse nest under the bridge, inside the steel beams, high above the Mississippi River. Tom Fields, who oversees the bridge for the city of Venice, Ill., says some of the men in the maintenance crew carry crowbars while working on the bridge, because the falcons are known to attack, swooping down, screeching loudly, talons brandished, feathers flapping. But the falcons are still welcome. "We prefer to have them, despite all that, because they kill the pigeons," he says. Ever since the falcons started coming a few years ago, he says, "the pigeons are all gone."

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.
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.
Venice City Hall with its volunteer fire department. The city, which employs about 30 people, operates on $1.7 million a year and hasn't given raises in 15 years.
Jennifer Silverberg
Venice City Hall with its volunteer fire department. The city, which employs about 30 people, operates on $1.7 million a year and hasn't given raises in 15 years.

Neither the bridge's past nor the falcons under its deck are on the minds of commuters on this warm August afternoon. To most, it is simply worth paying the 50-cent toll for cars (up to $1.50 for trucks) on this old bridge rather than go to either of the two free bridges — the Poplar Street and the Martin Luther King — and get bogged in traffic jams. And the cars pull up at a fairly steady stream from Illinois Route 3 to one of the four tollgates at the east entrance to the bridge in Venice, their drivers tossing two quarters into the basket as they roll through, never really stopping. Most are regular McKinley commuters and have the ritual down: Hold quarters in hand, reduce speed, pick the gate to approach, roll down window, make the basket, hit the gas.

A short distance past the tollbooths and up the bridge incline, the terrain changes dramatically, getting rougher and bumpier, and, instinctively, the drivers slow down. Where the road curves, heading straight west over the waters of the Mississippi and toward the first of three gigantic steel trusses, there is another choice to make: inside or outside. The left lane is the safer option, newly refurbished and a relatively smooth ride, taking you right inside the trusses. The right lane is for those with adventurous leanings, a noisy, scary, rumbling ride on the pavement that runs outside the hulking truss structure, but one that provides a scenic view of the Missouri shoreline, the muddy water, the tethered casino and the occasional barge. In both lanes, once past the trusses, the road gets really bad, all broken and bumpy with no visible lanes, forcing drivers to slow down to 10 or 15 mph or risk an axle, until the bridge reaches Broadway in St. Louis, a block from the entrance ramps to Interstate 70 and in eyeshot of downtown.

Fields has the unenviable task of holding the bridge up, both structurally and financially. For 23 years he has managed the bridge, which now faces a serious crisis. The short-term crisis is that the city of St. Louis last month demanded the payment of about $800,000 in delinquent property taxes dating back to 1994 — a demand that included St. Louis' threat to sell the Missouri half of the bridge to the highest bidder.

No one took the threat very seriously, but it worked anyway: After a meeting between St. Louis and Venice officials, Venice handed over a check for $57,951 to St. Louis, buying itself 90 days to come up with a financial plan.

The longer-term crisis is that the bridge will shut down in the next two to five years if no major rehab is done. And that prospect is front-and-center these days in the mind of Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols. In talking about the bridge, Echols alternately refers to it both as an asset and an albatross.

Either way, the reality is, the bridge needs a lot of help — fast.

"We have a situation where the bridge is trying to fall apart on its own," says Fields, leaning over the guardrail and scanning the sides. It's worth keeping and, with a proper rehab, could provide service for another 30 years, he says. "It's a plain and common structure and strong as an ox. It's an old dowager of a bridge," he says. After a pause, he adds, "It's still a nice bridge."

The metal-and-concrete camelback bridge designed by Ralph Modjeski has the truss superstructure atop four limestone piers that reach down to bedrock. A fairly standard design at the time, the bridge was built at a cost of about $4 million by the Illinois Terminal Railroad to carry freight cars and "interurban electric trains" right into downtown St. Louis. At the time of the bridge's opening, the city of Venice and the surrounding communities were booming with trade and industry — plate-glass companies, steel mills, meatpacking plants, lead works, railyards. The opening of the direct "McKinley lines" into St. Louis was greeted with much pomp. About 100,000 people attended the bridge's opening ceremonies on a cold November day. "There were many bonfires along the shore on either side of the river as the air was raw and cold," according to one newspaper account.

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.

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.

Echols remembers the lines of separation around town where the racial divide manifested itself.

"When I was a kid, we couldn't play on this end of the park," he says, pointing out the back window from his modest second-floor mayoral office. "They had one softball diamond back on the northwestern edge. That's where you were supposed to be. At one point in time, most of the black people in that region lived in the west Madison area, which is right next door to north Venice. They slowly began to creep into north Venice but were not allowed across Meredocia Street. That was the dividing line, that street. One of the gentlemen that built his house there, old man Cross, they burned it to the ground. I never did forget it.

"I had a lot of traumatic experiences here," he continues. "I've been black all my life and I never used it as an excuse, but there were a lot of things that were not quite so acceptable that happened because of it."

Venice began in the early 1800s as a tiny community of whites around a ferry landing from which floated skiffs and barges, carrying livestock and produce across the Mississippi River into St. Louis. In 1845, the town was named Venice because the streets were frequently flooded; no levee existed. It grew organically as heavy industry cropped up to the north and east, in Granite City and Madison, and by the turn of the century, Venice had become a small nexus for the railroads, the roads and the river traffic. It survived the first half of the century as a modestly prosperous river town of 4,000-5,000 people, most of them white.

Even in the pre-civil-rights days, black kids had some advantages, Echols says: "The school system is a classic example. Most of the teachers don't live here. When I was a kid coming up, most of them did; they actually owned homes here — they had more input, they could vote, they paid taxes. They were part of the community. At 4 o'clock, your involvement didn't stop. Somehow, I think maybe the kids turned out better, you know? I'm almost 62 years old — I never went to jail."

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the '70s, the color of Venice changed, same as in East St. Louis and other neighboring towns. Echols is matter-of-fact about it all. "People laugh at me when I say to them — even at a City Council meeting or something and we start talking about being "a black town' — I say white people make a town black," he says with a smile. "There was always a saying in the black community that when the white people run away from something you may as well run away from it, 'cause there's nothing in it. Well, strangely enough, that has come true — there's nothing here to fight over.

"And I saw it as the numbers changed. It was 70-30 (percent) white, and I watched it as it did this, and this, and this, and now it is 90-10 black."

Though political power was welcomed in the black community, as men like Echols became the city's first black mayors, it also became apparent that white flight also meant green flight — the money followed the whites out of town. The lucky black towns were the ones with some source of taxes and jobs in their midst — refineries, stockyards, steel mills or power plants.

Because none of those have been growth industries in the last quarter of the century, the black towns in the Metro East have taken on other vices that whites won't allow in their neighborhoods but will nevertheless patronize: sex and gambling.

Brooklyn, the smaller, blacker southern neighbor of Venice, has strip joints and massage parlors ("Adult Entertainment! ATM Inside!") that help sustain the town. Echols and the Venice City Council have declined the role of host to the sex business. Farther south stands East St. Louis, itself on the brink of disincorporation 10 years ago but saved by the Casino Queen, at its waterfront, which pumps around $10 million a year into the city coffers, more than double all the city's other revenue sources.

Echols' morality may make him decline the offer to profit from sex, but gambling is another thing altogether. He even attempted to work with Granite City and Madison to get the license for a casino boat, but East St. Louis got it. He says, only half-jokingly, that cities like Venice ought to get a cut — even 1 percent would be a lot — from East St. Louis' share of the Casino Queen revenue: "God knows there's enough people in Venice that go down there and lose their money — including me!"

Though Venice is part of the heavily industrialized "tri-cities" area with Granite City and Madison, it gets very little of the tax base or the jobs. Most of the industry is outside Venice, and most of the employees are whites from outside Venice.

Echols tells an anecdote about his own first attempt, at the age of 18, to apply for a job at the Dow Chemical plant in town. "I went out there, and the guy let me sit there and fill out the application, and with a smile on his face he tore it up right in front of me and let the pieces fall down into the trash can," he says.

Did the man say anything?

"No, just had one of those ridiculous smirks on his face."

What businesses Venice does host are few and far between: a large lot on the southern edge of town where Chrysler cars and vans await shipment by rail; two mom-and-pop groceries; four small taverns; a Mobil gas station; a handful of light-industrial small businesses; two elementary schools and a high school. All the homes are modest, some neatly trimmed with flower gardens and painted fences. Most neighborhoods are liberally sprinkled with vacant or abandoned homes. Three public housing complexes are spread around town — one of them, the Viola Jones Homes, is where Echols spent much of his youth.

Interestingly, Echols himself earns a living catering to the poor in town. Along with his son, Tyrone Q. Echols Jr., he owns the Currency Exchange on Broadway. The business depended heavily for years on welfare recipients cashing their monthly checks, for which Echols' business got a per-check fee.

"It's not a money-making business anymore," says Echols. "The state revamped the welfare situation, and you don't get the welfare checks anymore. We used to be a direct delivery agent for that and for food stamps." All that has changed. Illinois now gives "link" cards to welfare recipients — no more checks or food stamps. "Probably put about a 40 percent dent in our business," he says. "They've got the card, so we lost out on that. It used to be probably $500-$600 a month just for handling the food stamps. We'd probably pick up another $500-$750 in cashing the checks. That's gone." The business now is mostly cashing other government checks. "We don't make anything much from it," he says with a sigh. "If you add it all together, you might come up with about $14,000 a year. You'd starve to death."

Fortunately, the mayor has a couple of other small sources of income. He and his son own about 20 pieces of property in Venice and neighboring Madison, ranging in assessed valuation from $240 to about $30,000. Echols' son also serves as the acting bridge manager.

As for his salary as mayor, Echols gets a mere $300 a month. The city survives on a total operating budget of about $1.7 million and a total municipal workforce of fewer than 30 people. It has its own police and streets departments, a garage and a volunteer fire department, with a comptroller and an administrative secretary constituting "City Hall."

The last raise given city employees was 15 years ago. "The one thing that helped keep this little city afloat was that we just didn't give any raises — the money was just not there," he says. "These municipal jobs will never be booming jobs, but they might keep you from starvation."

As mayor, he tries to scrape money from all sources. Though the sign you see heading north on Route 3 gives the population of Venice as 3,500 (based on 1990 census data), Echols believes it is undercounted, and he is painfully aware, as all mayors are, that a lot of federal and state money is attached to the underserved population. At the last census count, says Echols, he took a week off from work so he could help residents fill out the forms. "They had short forms and they had long forms, and it scared them," he recalls. "I tried to convince them that none of this information can be used to harm you, because there was no doubt that there were people in public housing who had relatives living with them that weren't on the lease. So, in reality, where I'm looking at this paper and it says two in the household, there were probably eight. The forms were asking conditions of the homes. I said, "These are things that will determine what extra money HUD will put in here for housing rehab. Don't be suspicious about everything.'

"I think Big Brother is watching you, too, but this is legitimate," he says he told them.

Now, he says, he is hoping the new-millennium census data will be more accurate. "Without question, we qualify for foreign aid," he adds quickly. "No question about it. And it's not getting much better."

The numbers leave little to the imagination. The 1998 "equalized assessed valuation" of the city is $9.5 million. A year earlier, it was $16.2 million, but then the city's largest industrial property — the AmerenUE power plant that sits in the shadow of the McKinley Bridge — was reassessed, and its value dropped by more than $5 million. When that happened, says Echols, the city took a $170,000-a-year hit, about 10 percent of its budget.

The AmerenUE power plant, a huge, hulking structure on the water's edge, has its own story. When it was first proposed, the area — literally under the bridge — was home to hundreds of blacks, as was a neighboring area to the south known as Kerr Island. A July 14, 1940, story in the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat begins thusly: "Sixty Negro families are going to have to move out of their little homes under the east approach to McKinley Bridge to make room for Union Electric's new $10 million Venice Power plant. In the little Negro community known as Kerr Island, the plaint is that "We don't know where to go.' Most of the Negroes have paid a small ground rent for their holdings. A few probably are squatters. Each tenant has put up his own shack or house, sometimes using driftwood or castoff lumber."

The power plant still cranks out 429 megawatts of electricity, and almost none of its employees is a Venice resident. Blacks occupy Venice proper; most whites have scattered. And no one lives on Kerr Island.

All that remains today of Kerr Island is the Robin's Nest.

It's a small tavern at the end of a short dirt road called Slough Road, just south of the bridge and a stone's throw inside the levee. A small shack of a house, unoccupied, sits next to the tavern, and the area is surrounded by trees, shrubs and greenery. James "Ed" Newsome spent some of his early childhood years at Kerr Island. Now the Venice police chief, Newsome slows his police car down near the Robin's Nest and makes a U-turn. "I lived right over there," he says, pointing toward a clump of trees. "My fourth-grade teacher lived right across the street. There were houses all around here." He drives back out and up the incline, onto Route 3. "Used to walk up and catch the bus right here," he says. "There used to be a service station here. There were a lot of white taverns here, a drugstore, a post office. It's all gone."

At 54, Newsome oversees an impoverished police department in a town that he has watched grow blacker and poorer in his lifetime. For 23 years, he worked for Madison County — as a detective and then as the county-jail superintendent — before retiring and taking over as Venice police chief in April 1996. He says he liked the idea of returning to his hometown as police chief.

But it wasn't the salary that attracted him: Newsome makes less than $10 an hour as police chief. He has five full-time police officers: a sergeant (also a detective, who earns $8.17 an hour), and a juvenile officer, a DARE officer and two other patrolmen (all at $7.33 an hour). He also has three part-time police officers and three dispatchers (at $5.75 an hour). Until recently, Newsome adds quickly, he had four dispatchers, but one left when the neighboring city of Madison hired her as a dispatcher for more than Newsome's salary.

As for deploying the officers, Newsome says, he tries to make sure at least two officers work each shift. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, when the Cut Rate Tavern on Baucum Avenue is hopping because of its two-for-one drink specials, Newsome schedules three patrolmen. Today, there is a problem: The officer who was scheduled to work called in sick, and Newsome finds himself the only patrolman on duty in Venice.

He says he could use at least three more full-time officers. A big obstacle is the pay. "Most of the officers we hire, as soon as they get some experience here, they're gone," he says. He's glad that one of his officers does have experience but laments that the guy can only work the midnight shift because he has a second job as the police chief of Alorton, a few miles away.

Crime in Venice boils down to crack cocaine. The city had only one homicide in each of the last two years. But the crack business hasn't slackened at all, says Newsome. Buyers from neighboring towns and from St. Louis drive in and buy the drug on a handful of street corners. Prostitution is minimal and mostly related to the crack business. The cops handle a substantial number of domestic-violence calls. "The husband and wife will be fighting, and one or both will be on crack," Newsome says.

As he cruises around town, he points to a small auto-mechanic setup, with a couple of abandoned cars outside. "They say that guy over there is the cheapest auto mechanic in town because he takes a little bit of crack for pay," Newsome says with a smile. "We're trying to work on him. He's a good mechanic, but he's a crackhead."

A few minutes later, he points to a slim young woman walking down the street in tight leopard-print pants and high heels. "That girl there, she used to be a secretary at one of our schools, and now she's addicted to crack cocaine."

Newsome can't afford a sustained attack on the drug problem. His department has neither the money nor the officers to participate in the regional Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southern Illinois (MEGSI), essentially an undercover narc operation jointly funded by member police departments. MEGSI conducts drug crackdowns with undercover agents in cities that participate. "They assess $1 per resident, and we cannot afford $3,600 to participate," says Newsome. Nor can he afford the other option, which is to donate the services of one of his own officers.

He slows his car at the corner of Douglas and Baucum streets, where three young black men in baseball caps are standing on the sidewalk, leaning against an old blue Chevy. They keep a wary eye on the patrol car as it approaches. "They're probably waiting to deal some," says Newsome. He makes a U-turn and pulls up at the corner, parking about 15 feet from the men. "They'll scatter in a few minutes," he says. Soon enough, the men start ambling away, down the street and around the corner.

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.

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.

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.

And what could the bondholders do if the bridge couldn't make the payments? "One thing they have the right to do is to take over operations," he says. "They could leverage the city out and take control and run it themselves. They don't want to do that. Their position is not all that strong. They could end up with a mile of concrete and steel. And I don't think there's $4 million of scrap metal out there."

Down the roadfrom Fields' office, Echols sits at his desk inside City Hall. On the building across the street hang four beer signs — Bud, Old Style, Stag and Busch — advertising the beers no longer available in the building. On the other side of the street hangs a badly written sign advertising a demolition company's office and phone number. Across the block, an abandoned gas station and a shuttered drive-in theater can be seen. A small post office and the one lonely business — Bob's Red Fox grocery — seem to be the only places with any activity at the town's major intersection.

Echols cannot help but talk about the town as much as he talks about the bridge. His concern is the town, but everyone else's concern is the bridge. He understands that the real challenge will come when they find the money to solve the immediate crisis and will face the question of bridge ownership. Asked whether he would favor the city handing over the bridge to the state in exchange for paying off the bondholders and the tax debt, he talks about the city's "equity" interest. He makes the best case he can — that his city deserves something for owning and operating the bridge for 40 years, and that the bridge, even as it stands, has some value.

"The bridge is worth something," he says. "Now, they can talk all they want about how ragged it is and this and that and the other — hey, we spent $40,000 a month to keep it safe. If it costs $500 million-$750 million to put a new one up, don't tell me this one's not worth but 2 or 3 or 4 million bucks. I don't wanna hear that. I'm not going to listen to that. It won't be a decision made solely by Mayor Echols, but my recommendation to the voters will be what I just said."

Echols wants to preserve both the bridge and his city. Trouble is, the region's political leaders see the McKinley Bridge as absolutely essential to moving traffic and so will find the millions of dollars needed to prop it up. It will be a lot tougher to find the concern — or the money — to sustain Venice.

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