Repair work on the Chester Bridge took much less time than engineers originally estimated.
The Missouri Department of Transportation, which announced Friday that it would be lowering the weight allowance on the Chester Bridge to 25 tons — effectively closing the only river crossing between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau to most tractor-trailer traffic — in order to make necessary repairs to the nearly 80-year-old span, announced Wednesday afternoon that they had completed the repairs and would reinstate the 40-ton weight allowance by 7 a.m. Thursday morning.
“Our crews made great progress on the necessary repairs yesterday,” said Southeast District engineer Mark Croarkin. “Utilizing crews and equipment from Jefferson City, St. Louis and the Southeast District allowed us to expedite the work and will hopefully minimize the inconvenience for travelers and commercial vehicle operators.”
Friday's announcement caused concern for many local businesses and farmers, who make up a large portion of the more than 6,400 vehicles that use the bridge across the Mississippi River, the only motor vehicle crossing between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, connecting Missouri 51 with Illinois 150.
"We were very surprised and concerned to receive that call," said Tom Welge, CEO of Gilster-Mary Lee in Chester, on Friday. "This is going into our busiest time of the year historically, and on top of that, we've got tremendous demand for our products because of all the COVID-related issues with grocery stores selling so much product."
When MoDOT announced the weight reduction, they did not provide a timeline for the repairs, with at least one estimate reaching two months. A story published in the Sept. 10 issue of the Republic-Monitor — which went to press before MoDOT made its Wednesday announcement — detailed the struggles many local businesses and farmers would face if the weight restriction remained in place.
Mark Gremaud of Perryville said Tuesday that the weight restriction could cost him tens of thousands of dollars in extra shipping costs.
The closest alternate routes — the Jefferson Barracks bridge to the north and the Bill Emerson Bridge to the south — can add, on average, approximately two hours to a trip that usually takes considerably less, even on a round trip.
“It certainly affects us,” Gremaud said. “It’s down to 25 tons and affects our freight going to Gavilon Grain in Rockwood, Ill., in Gateway FS in Evansville, Ill. We’re going to have a wheelbarrow load of grain going across instead of a semi load.”
Craig Romann, whose farm is about a half-mile from the bridge, said the weight restriction would have been particularly frustrating.
“We’re right here at the Chester Bridge,” said Romann, who maintains a small fleet of his own to transport his grain. “I can almost see the grain elevator from here, just down the river. It’s going to probably be about 100 miles out of the way to get there. I don’t know how you put a value on [that additional distance].”
In Wednesday's press release, Croarkin said MoDOT would try to avoid imposing another weight restriction in the future.
“However, given the age and overall poor condition of the bridge we expect there to be challenges until the bridge can be replaced,” Croarkin said. “We also have a bridge rehabilitation project programmed for 2021, which will allow us to keep the bridge operational until we are able to replace the structure.”
Plans to replace the Chester Bridge are not projected until 2028 for an estimated cost of approximately $140 million.