When the Eads Bridge was built more than 140 years ago, it was among the first of any structure to use steel as a primary construction material.
A recent project to repair the iconic bridge required more than 580 tons of steel, according to Metro Transit.
The span that connects downtown St. Louis to East St. Louis is the oldest bridge still in operation over the Mississippi River, the agency said, and it’s hoped that $48 million in repairs will extend the span’s life another 75 years.
The bridge’s history and the rehabilitation project were celebrated Friday. Officials closed the bridge, which carries cars and MetroLink trains across the river, to vehicle traffic for most of the day and opened it up to visitors on foot.
“This bridge, frankly, is a national treasure,” said Mokhtee Ahmad, regional administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, at a program on the bridge.
Its first cornerstone was laid in 1868, and the bridge was dedicated in 1874.
Today, Metro Transit shares ownership of the bridge with St. Louis. The city owns and maintains the road deck, and Metro is responsible for everything else.
MetroLink operated in single-track mode for four years on the bridge as part of the rehab project, with trains alternating east and west across one lane of traffic. Both tracks reopened in June.
The project, which was supported by $27 million in federal stimulus money, was beset with hurdles, including when an initial round of bids came in well above Metro’s estimates. And there were labor concerns — a whistleblower’s lawsuit alleged that Metro did not follow federal laws when it required a mandatory, union-only project labor agreement. The suit ultimately was dropped.
Federal funds, including the stimulus money, covered 91 percent of the project’s total cost.
Work done on the bridge included replacing struts, bracing and other support steel that dated back to the 1800s. As many as nine layers of paint, rust and corrosion were blasted off the bridge, and crews made about 1,200 structural repairs to it, as well as rebuilding concrete that supports the road deck and applying 7,500 gallons of protective coating, Metro said.
The project had been expected to be done by late 2014 or early 2015, but factors such as high water and extreme cold delayed work.
Ray Friem, executive director of Metro Transit, said Friday that there were many unknowns in restoring the bridge, including a lack of accurate drawings.
He also paid tribute to James Pigue of Dittmer, 24, a worker on the bridge who fell to his death when a towboat struck scaffolding last year, for his “courage to work high above a raging river to restore a bridge that unites our region.”
But it was a happy mood atop the bridge on Friday, with the wind blowing and performances by marching bands from East St. Louis and University City. The students marched from their respective states to the center of the span.
Lisa Smith of East St. Louis watched proudly as her daughter, Kayla Washington, crossed the bridge while playing her flute.
“I’m so excited she got a chance to experience this,” Smith said. And she was glad the celebrate the work done to the bridge for another reason — she crosses it about six times a month.