By Ray Downs
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In any endurance test, the last mile usually is the hardest. With the St. Louis Riverfront Trail, the last three-quartersof a mile is turning out to be the most difficult and, by far, the most expensive.
The bicycle trail extends north from the Arch and stops cold at the end of North Riverfront Park on Riverview Drive. Although the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is in sight by that point, the trail is blocked by the chain-link-fenced confines of a city water-treatment plant. David Visintainer, director of public utilities for the city of St. Louis, is unwilling to grant a 20-foot-wide easement on the edge of the plant's grounds to allow the bike trail to proceed along the east side of Riverview. He argues that any infringement of the plant jeopardizes security against terrorists, thereby endangering the city's water supply.
It's an argument that will end up costing between $400,000 and $1 million for a less-than-a-mile bypass of the water-treatment plant. Visintainer is adamant about the need for the bypass, though he says building two costly bridges to put the trail across Riverview Drive from the plant was not the Water Division's idea. Two ground-level crossings with stoplights were proposed, but the nonprofit group Trailnet, which administers the trail, thought that option was unsafe because of the volume of car and truck traffic on Riverview.
Not everyone is buying Visintainer's concerns about terrorism.
"It's baloney," says Bob Cassilly, who owns property just south of North Riverfront Park. Cassilly says the chance for the kind of terrorism Visintainer fears is infinitesimal. Besides, he says, if somebody wanted to sabotage the plant's treatment basins, they could do so as they drove by on Riverview. He thinks it's a turf issue: "It's a territorial thing. It's unresponsive city government. Anybody could come up with a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit that sounds defensible -- 'public safety' or 'terrorism.' If they're really worried about terrorism, they should have a concrete cover or put something over it. You could take your handy slingshot and put a pea-sized thing of plutonium in there to poison the entire planet."
Because the treatment basins are visible from Riverview and only a brick's throw away, the idea that passing bicyclists are more dangerous to the public's safety than cars a few feet farther away is a curious notion. "There's more danger of cars driving into the plant. I've had four or five people this winter drive through my fences at the cement plant," says Cassilly, referring to the abandoned plant he owns farther south on Riverview. "They smashed fences and gates."
Visintainer says moving the chain-link fence closer to the treated water would also mean putting the bike trail over several of the plant's underground tunnels, built more than 90 years ago. Though the volume of bike riders wouldn't affect the tunnels, he fears the equipment used to pave the asphalt trail might cause the tunnels to collapse. However, he does admit that at the plant, "light tractors" have been used on the ground over the tunnels without a problem.
Whatever Visintainer's concerns, it apparent that Trailnet would rather switch the plans than fight about them. The trail was begun in 1988, and the water-treatment-plant issue has been kicking around for a long time. "This has been explained for 10 years to a variety of entities in considerable detail of what the security and other issues are," says Visintainer. "This has been gone over and over again. They are legitimate issues."
Ted Curtis, executive director of Trailnet, doesn't question or dispute Visintainer's views. "He's a neighbor of the trail, so we have to deal with his concerns. You listen," Curtis says. "He's a professional in that area, and he's charged with the security of the city -- we recognize that."
That said, Curtis admits to being frustrated that after 10 years, the trail still hasn't linked downtown with the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. At that rate, Lewis and Clark would never have made it out of Missouri. Of course, they never had to pay for rights-of-way, pave their way or worry about terrorists.
The options being discussed include two handicapped-accessible bridges that would span Riverview Drive, over and back, and put the trail up on the hillside, looking down on the river. One of those proposals would include two poured-concrete bridges and would cost close to $1 million. The latest design plan by the city is for one bridge across Riverview, south of the water plant, and a street-level stoplight crossing at the north edge. The cost of that option would exceed $400,000, with 80 percent covered by federal funds and 20 percent by the city. Two street-level crossings with stoplights would cost considerably less.
With the $400,000-or-more bypass, the Arch-to-Illinois stretch of the bridge will cost about $1 million, with close to half of that amount spent to bypass the water plant. Despite the cost and the delay, Trailnet wants the bypass to go forward. "We would have liked to have it happen earlier," Curtis says, "but we're working with the city to make sure it happens and it's well designed."
Starting this weekend, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge will be open on Saturdays and Sundays. The grand plan is to eventually enable bikers and hikers to go from downtown to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, over to Illinois and then north to Alton or south to East St. Louis.