By JIM SALTER
ST. LOUIS (AP) - The $380 million project to upgrade the grounds of the Gateway Arch officially began Friday as two members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet helped break ground.
Construction is expected to begin as early as next week on a key component of the project: A park that will sit atop a concrete and steel structure bridging Interstate 70. Rerouted roads, landscaping improvements and other work are also part of the massive undertaking that officials hope to complete by Oct. 28, 2015 - the 50th anniversary of the topping of the Arch.
The project "gives new meaning to this iconic symbol, which is the Arch," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said as hundreds of civic leaders gathered at a small park near an interstate overpass, the noise of passing trucks and cars a constant reminder of I-70's presence.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell noted that the entire Arch project is using a combination of government funding, a sales tax approved by local voters and charitable contributions.
"What you're doing here is a model for the nation," she said.
Since the Arch opened, its sprawling grounds have been separated from the rest of downtown St. Louis by Interstate 70. Pedestrians have to cross busy Memorial Drive on the overpass, which can be a dangerous and unappealing trek for tourists and residents alike. Civic leaders for years have been trying to find an answer to the problem.
Nathan Hollman, 41, his wife and their 4-year-old son, were visiting St. Louis from Nashville, Tenn.
"We knew we had to cross a major divide to get there," Hollman said after walking from downtown to the Arch grounds. "It was busy traffic and looked a little dangerous. A park would be much nicer."
Robert Schleipman, a 79-year-old downtown St. Louis resident, had harsher words.
"It's been a disgrace for the people to have to cross all that traffic," Schleipman said. "The noise, the dust, and it's dangerous sometimes with people trying to run the lights."
The "Park Over the Highway" component will cost about $55 million, with funding breaking down as: a $20 million federal grant, $25 million from the state of Missouri and $10 million from CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation.
Federal officials say the expenditure is worth it because the project will boost tourism to the Arch and to downtown St. Louis. The nonprofit CityArchRiver has estimated the project could add 4,400 new permanent jobs for the region.
The renovations and upgrades saw a boost in April when St. Louis city and county voters approved a 3/16-cent sales tax that supplements private donations and other funding for the Arch project. The tax is expected to generate about $9.4 million annually, with part of the money also going to city and county parks and for regional hiking and biking paths.
In addition to the new structure over I-70, the project includes plans a riverside plaza, amphitheater and a bird sanctuary. It also calls for redesign of Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, which runs between the Arch and the Mississippi River. A new bike path, light towers, benches and guardrails will be added along the roadway and the street will be raised 2 1/2 feet to limit flooding.
Improvements are also planned to the Arch museum and the Old Courthouse, the historic site of the Dred Scott case.
"We will give people a new reason to come back to our Arch, our city, our river, and enjoy it and stay longer when they're here," Mayor Francis Slay said.