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ST. LOUIS • Construction buffs, bridge lovers and the simply curious gathered along the riverbank.

Buffeted by 35 mph gusts of wind, they held onto their borrowed hard hats as they gazed upward at the rising towers of steel and concrete.

Some pulled in close to hear project manager Greg Horn. Others stepped back to snap photographs or to examine a 6-foot tall cylinder of rock pulled from the riverbed.

They had come for a chance to tour the construction site for the new span across the Mississippi River and to see a piece of St. Louis history in the making.

Lloyd Brown, 49, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in O'Fallon, Mo., was there with his 13-year-old son, Joey Harmann, who hopes to become an architect.

"When my son drives over this bridge 40 years from now, he will always think of us touring the bridge together," he said.

Tours are conducted on the last Friday of the month from February through October and have proven so popular that they are booked through the end of the year with a waiting list. The 90-minute presentations can accommodate up to 25 people. To get on the wait list, call 314-453-1808 or email info@newriverbridge.org. (Virtual tours conducted by the Missouri Department of Transportation are also available. 

"It is extremely rare for the downtown area to get a major bridge like this," said MoDOT spokesman Andrew Gates. "The Poplar Street Bridge was the last one and that was back in the '60s."

During a 20-minute slide show at the start of the tour, Horn explained that the bridge is being constructed to move Interstate 70 off the Poplar Street Bridge, one of only two spans in the United States that carries three interstates. (The other is north of Madison, Wis.)

Construction on the new bridge began in 2010, but the towers that will support it have only become visible since late last year from Interstate 70, Horn said. When they are completed in late spring, they will be 400 feet tall, roughly two-thirds the height of the Gateway Arch.

The bridge is scheduled to open in early 2014 and is one of 35 construction projects in the corridor that will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, Horn said. The main span represents $240 million of the $700 million project, which is being paid for with a combination of state and federal funds.

As Horn spoke, tour-goer Earl Finger jotted down notes and referred to an album filled with photos taken earlier in the project. This was Finger's fourth tour of the bridge.

"Construction is kind of a hobby of mine because I like to know how things are put together and how they work," said Finger, 81, of Brentwood, a retired computer programmer. "This bridge is a completely different type of construction than anything I've seen before."

The bridge will use cables attached to two towers to support the driving surface. A shorter version of this type of span is the Clark Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi at Alton.

Planners included lighting into the design because they anticipate that the bridge will be one of the most photographed structures in the area. Right now the Arch and the Clark Bridge are the most photographed.

Margaret Meyer, 67, of Belleville, attended the tour with 10 members of her walking group. They were taking MetroLink across the Eads Bridge late last year when someone commented on the bridge progress and wondered about a tour.

"It was cold wind walking up here — it was in our faces — but nobody grumbled because everybody was very anxious to see this and everybody learned some very interesting facts and figures," she said.

On the day of the February tour, no workers were on site because of high wind. Horn said high water had caused more than two months of delays in construction, but the project was back on track. Only one minor injury has been reported, he said.

Tour-goers met at a trailer for Massman-Traylor-Alberici, the joint contractors for the project. After Horn's talk, they lined up for hard hats and started on foot down a gravel and dirt path toward an opening in the flood wall. They passed refinery silos emitting a tarry smell and went by a hodgepodge of blue tarp and plywood homes at Hopeville, an encampment for the homeless.

At the levee, they headed back north along the Great Rivers Greenway bike trail past a reconstructed brick pump house that provides a viewing platform for the bridge.

Some stopped to look inside and others headed toward a stack of metal boxes with holes to thread the cables through. They'll be part of the towers.

Bringing up the tail end of the group was Jim Shields, 78, of Des Peres, who was using a walker. Gates stayed with him to make sure he didn't miss out on anything.

"You talk about luck, I had a personal tour," said Shields, a retired dentist.

Shields said his father and grandfather worked for the Katy Railroad, which was right along the river, so he has a great affinity for the Mississippi and the bridges that cross it.

He said several books document the building of the nearby Eads Bridge, but he preferred to see history in action.

"Why would I get a book when MoDOT is out here telling us about how they're doing it now?" he said.


 BRIDGE CONSTRUCTION BY THE NUMBERS

• The new Mississippi River bridge will require 132 miles of cable, enough to reach from St. Louis to Columbia, Mo.

• The main span of the bridge will use more than 50,000 cubic yards of concrete, enough to construct 200 miles of sidewalk — from St. Louis to Springfield, Ill., and back. It'll take 6,250 truck loads to haul it all.

• Each foundation contains enough concrete for a 24-mile-long sidewalk and the amount of reinforcing steel used in 645 cars.

• The main span will require more than 8 million pounds of reinforcing steel, equivalent to the weight of 2,716 cars.

• The total weight of the main span is 31 million pounds, about the same as 3,370 elephants.

Source: Missouri Department of Transportation

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