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I-70 depressed lanes

The depressed lanes of Interstate 70 in downtown St. Louis in this Aug. 28, 2008, file photo. Photo by Huy Mach, hmach@post-dispatch.com

Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Mississippi River Bridge were cancelled Friday because snow in the northeast kept some dignitaries away. No matter: Preliminary work already is underway and the main span of the four-lane, cable-stayed structure is set for completion by early 2014.

That puts the bridge project roughly on a track with downtown’s other monumental public works project. The National Park Service is staging an international design competition as part of its new general management plan for the Gateway Arch and surrounding park grounds.

The competition has attracted leading architects, engineers, artists and planners from around the world. The project could lead to dramatically improved connections between downtown, the Arch, the riverfront, Laclede’s and Chouteau’s landings and expanded park grounds in East St. Louis.

The new bridge is the key to the single best way to improve access to the Arch: Removing the depressed and elevated lanes of Interstate 70 that sever downtown from the riverfront.

The Park Service has stated that it “would prefer and strongly supports the removal of the Interstate highway between Poplar Street Bridge and Eads Bridge.”

And no wonder. The 1.5-mile stretch of steel and concrete is one of the most heedless examples of highway planning in the age of urban renewal. It forms a forbidding and confusing barrier along the park’s western boundary — a dismal counterpoint to Eero Saarinen’s transcendent symbol of westward migration.

Previous schemes for dealing with the depressed lanes have involved bridging it with a giant lid. How could the highway be removed entirely?

An enterprising collection of St. Louis planners, designers, environmentalists and historic preservationists have formed a group called City to River, which has put together a compelling vision.

They argue that the costs of such a project compare favorably to the costs of building a lid. The new bridge figures prominently into the analysis.

It’s expected to carry a lot of I-70 traffic that now flows along the depressed lanes, making it plausible for city streets — and a new boulevard in place of Memorial Drive — to replace downtown stretch of interstate.

But could it be done before the larger Arch project is completed? The Park Service project carries a drop-dead completion date of Oct. 28, 2015. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar envisions a ribbon cutting that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the final section of Arch being lifted into place.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has reservations about abandoning the interstate.

This convergence is where the firepower of the Arch design competition’s brilliant contestants comes into play. The 2015 deadline for completion of the Arch project should be respected. But preserving options to remove Interstate 70 —  even if it can’t be accomplished by 2015 — should be on the table.

State transportation  officials will brief the contestants in mid-April. Everyone should expect a robust discussion on how to heal the scar that separates the Arch from the public.