Building new river span slowed by high water

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Builders of the first new Mississippi River bridge at congestion-plagued St. Louis in some four decades hope to make up the 81 days of construction lost this year because of prolonged high water on the river.

Key contractors have been adding shifts and lengthening the work week to catch up from the construction delays since April on the roughly $670 million project, which includes the nearly $230 million cable-stayed, four-lane main span, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Monday.

Officials still hope the bridge will open as planned by early 2014, eventually diverting Interstate 70 traffic from an existing bridge and easing snarls at one of the nation's busiest crossings.

"We knew from the beginning that there would be some days that we couldn't work," said Greg Horn, project director for the Missouri Department of Transportation. "Unfortunately, those came in at the beginning."

The key contractors -- Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Traylor Bros. Inc. of Indiana and St. Louis-based Alberici Constructors -- will not be penalized for days lost to high water and will get extra days to complete the project.

Army Corps of Engineers records show the Mississippi was above flood stage for 67 days since March 1, largely because of nagging heavy rain in northern Missouri and Iowa. River levels returned closer to normal in August, and the project team began working all but one day a week and added a second shift to make up for lost time before that shift was pulled again when the river's levels again went higher-than-normal.

That shift was to be reinstated Monday.

"The contractor has done everything they could do," said Chris Morgan, a senior inspector with Missouri's transportation department.

The new bridge will divert Interstate 70 traffic from an existing bridge that's one of just two in the nation that accommodate three freeways. The plan also allows for the bridge, designed to be two lanes in each direction, to be expanded by a lane each way.

The project, meant to relieve the 47-year-old Poplar Street Bridge now used by more than 120,000 vehicles daily, is being funded by a mix of state funds and the $239 million U.S. taxpayers are kicking in.

Until Missouri and Illinois struck a deal in early 2008, the project consistently was downsized and stalled by chronic haggling between the two states over financing even as traffic across the river continued to mushroom. The cost, initially expected to be $640 million, has grown to $670 million because bids came in higher than expected.

The new bridge is expected to carry about 40,000 vehicles a day initially, up to 55,000 vehicles daily by 2030.

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