Plans are underway to replace an aging bridge that carries US Route 54 across the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Missouri. The existing bridge (the Champ Clark Bridge) was built in the 1920s and is in such poor shape that MoDOT has placed extensive weight and speed restrictions to ensure safety. Under a new proposal, Missouri, Illinois, and the federal government would spend $60 million on a replacement, with split of $25 million, $25 million, and $10 million, respectively. But is such an expenditure justified for Missouri?
To explore this question, we first need to look at traffic on the bridge. Before MoDOT placed weight restrictions, about 4,000 vehicles used the Champ Clark Bridge every day. That’s about as much as a lightly used urban street, and it’s low for a Mississippi River crossing. For example, bridges at Hannibal and Quincy each carry between 15,000 and 17,000 vehicles per day. Also, according to the Census Bureau, only four Missourians living in Pike County, Missouri (where the bridge is located) commuted to work in Pike County, Illinois. Actually, that estimate was within the margin of error, meaning it is possible that no one who lives in the county on the Missouri side of the Champ Clark Bridge works in the county on the Illinois side. About 500 residents of Pike County, Illinois, work in Pike County, Missouri. This low traffic makes sense when one notes that on the Missouri side there is only the small city of Louisiana (population 3,300) and the Illinois side of river is primarily farmland. Additionally, commodity flows are generally routed to the north or south of the Champ Clark Bridge.
Given the low traffic level on the Champ Clark Bridge, and the very few commuters who live in Missouri and commute to Illinois, a new Mississippi River bridge is likely to have limited positive impact for Missouri. The bridge’s replacement, therefore, is a perfect opportunity for Missouri to explore the option of tolling. Assuming the $60 million cost estimate is correct, a toll of around $2.50 per vehicle would be able to pay for bridge in 30 years, assuming existing drivers were willing to pay for the convenience of a Mississippi River bridge in that area. And if they are not, it calls into question the need for a bridge, with or without a toll. By placing a toll on the bridge, those who benefit greatly from the new bridge can fund its replacement without much, if any, additional strain on MoDOT’s or IDOT’s finances. It would be a fair way of funding a new bridge, and was in fact the method used to fund the construction of the Champ Clark Bridge in the first place.
The bottom line is that paying a new bridge on US Route 54 may not be worth it for Missouri, but it may be worth it for those who would actually use the bridge. The best way to find out whether that is the case is to explore the tolling option.