Crossing the Regionalism River

By on June 12, 2018

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

— Norman Maclean: From a “A River Runs Through It”

By Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL 

Last Friday (June 8) we listened to Steve Ehlmann, St. Charles County executive speak to a St. Louis Regional Chamber gathering. Through the window of the Four Seasons ballroom reception area we could see the Mississippi River roll by eight stories below.

St. Louis levee, 1850s

Mr. Ehlmann told the gathered public policy makers from around the bi-state region that the crime problems in the City St. Louis were a problem that we all needed to work on together. “Crime in the City creates tragedy in the City, but it impacts us all,” he said.

Barriers or Connectors?

Back in December, the Forum brought urban analyst David Rusk to St. Louis as the first speaker in our regionalism series. We went with Rusk to visit the St. Charles County Executive in his office as part of a number of visits with leaders around the region.

At the beginning of a lengthy discussion Mr. Ehlmann pointed out the window of his office at a sweeping view of the Missouri River toward north St. Louis County. He spoke of the impact that “their crime problem” in the City and County were having on St. Charles County’s ability to attract investment. Ehlmann and Rusk discussed the crime issue, and the kind of leadership it would take on a regional basis to turn it around.

Those two viewpoints from a single leader on the same issue are emblematic of the dichotomy that our region’s location on the nexus of two rivers has always brought: The rivers are both barriers and connectors.

This Friday (June 15), Peter Goldmark, an extraordinarily accomplished individual, will be the Forum’s speaker at our next event. It is not of Goldmark’s work as chair of the Rockefeller Foundation, publisher of the International Herald Tribune, or director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and air program that he will speak. Goldmark will be talking about the decades of successful regional collaboration engendered by another organization he helmed – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The NY/NJ Port Authority was the model for Bi-State Development in the St. Louis regionEstablished in 1949 through an interstate compact between Missouri and Illinois, ratified by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Truman in 1950, Bi-State Development was created to serve and enrich the region. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, established in 1921 under a similar Congressionally-approved interstate compact, oversees much of the regional transportation infrastructure in New York and New Jersey within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty. This includes bridges, tunnels, JFK and LaGuardia airports, seaports, the PATH railway, and the World Trade Center within the geographical jurisdiction of the Port of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority operates its own 1,700-person police department.

A History of Logistics

Our region has been a center of logistics from its time as an 18th Century trading post through its role as a launching pad for the expedition of Lewis and Clark and the westward expansion that ensued afterward.

Mark Twain knew St. Louis as an old friend. However, when he returned in 1882, at the age of 47, he didn’t recognize the familiar face of the city he had known for so long.

Steamboat bill of lading

When Twain visited St. Louis, gathering material for “Life on the Mississippi,” he was amazed at the changes which had transpired there during his lifetime At the time of his return, the age of steamboating, which had begun about 1812, was ending. There were half-a-dozen steamboats on the levee, which once had seen boats lined up three abreast.

The cause of this situation was Eads Bridge, an engineering marvel completed eight years earlier, which had provided the railways access across the Mississippi. My great-great-grandfather John Finan was an ironworker in the late 1850s for an entrepreneurial engineer named James Eads. It was Eads who had the vision and the intestinal fortitude and leadership it took to connect the two sides of the Mississippi with a rail bridge.

Twain, marking the coming of the railroads and barges with some anguish, was able to note the reaction of steamboat men to the bridge with amusement: “The mighty bridge stretching over our heads had done its share in the slaughter and spoliation. Remains of former steamboat men told me that the bridge doesn’t pay. Still, it can be no sufficient compensation to a corpse to know that the dynamite that laid him out was not of as good quality as it was supposed to be.”

St. Louis, showing the adaptability that has allowed it to survive and grow, would continue to expand as a rail center, necessitating the construction of Union Station in the 1890s — at the time the largest rail center in the world.

In the 1890s, Robert Brookings – one and the same Robert Brookings who built Washington University’s hilltop campus, the beginnings of BJC’s Kingshighway campus, and founded the Brookings Institute – began amassing land on the site of the former Chouteau’s Pond, a quarter-mile from the riverfront. There Brookings, who was a partner in an internationally recognized woodenware business with Samuel Cupples, built Cupples Station. It was arguably the first, and certainly the largest, intermodal logistical facility in the world.

Train in Cupples Station

Brooking’s scheme of connecting river, rail, and trucking logistics in one site was copied all over the world. In Brooking’s time his idea was met by resistance from those in the sway of our region’s natural aversion to change. Brookings, who was a force of nature, stayed the course.

Strength and Weakness

Throughout our history, our  leaders have recognized that the St. Louis region’s strength springs from the rivers. That is true as well today.

In late May, FreightweekSTL was hosted downtown. Front and center during that event were the accomplishments of the St. Louis Regional Freightway. When the Forum’s March regionalism speaker David Miller was making the rounds of regional leaders, those attending a meeting in Swansea, IL were asked, “Who is trusted by leadership on both sides of the Mississippi? The answer quickly came back, “Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway.”

Following a study by East-West Gateway, at the request of area leaders, Bi-State formed the St. Louis Regional Freightway to push for building on the region’s importance to the freight industry. In the short time since its founding it has successfully brought regional leadership together on issues as complex and diverse as educating future truck drivers, building partnerships with other regions, and beefing up infrastructure.

The Freightway has had its struggles, including most recently with trying to shake loose funding for the important Merchant’s rail bridge renovation and expansion. But even New York and New Jersey, with their financial clout and long history of collaboration, are currently facing uphill battles on infrastructure funding.What is encouraging is the way in which regional leaders have come together to bring our area back to its infrastructure roots.

We hope to see you at Peter Goldmark’s presentation on Friday.


About Tom Finan