It is a bridge which should have been dumped in the river 30 years ago. A

Bruce Wallace

by Bruce Wallace

bridge so painfully narrow, you squeeze your shoulders together and hold your breath as you slowly inch your way over it.

As with all road trip stories, this one starts at the beginning. You know the ending – I lived to tell the tale – but not without transferring a few gray hairs to my 26-year-old daughter.

The task was to rent a U-Haul and move my daughter from Michigan to Missouri in preparation for her next move. Why moving from Point A directly to Point B was not considered I’ll never know – I’m just the dad.

Drive through the eastern side of Chicago, you pay tolls – and might hit insane, parking-lot-like-traffic. Drive through Indianapolis – same story. It’s a roll of the dice either way.

But this time I was determined to not to come home through St. Louis. I needed a change of scenery. That change came in Springfield, Illinois when I went west on Interstate 72.

Ahh! I-72!

A lovely stretch of road which takes you to the Hannibal/Quincy area. In other words, nowhere. I would drive west on I-72 in order to later dip south and pick up Highway 54 and cross the Mississippi River into Louisiana, Mo.

I-72 is smooth as glass and lacked traffic. I could have ridden my bicycle down the middle of the two west-bound lanes and nobody would have cared.

Quite obviously funding for Interstate Highway 72 was procured by some downstate Illinois congressman who’s mother-in-law lives between the Mississippi River and Springfield.

However, the Champ Clark Bridge connecting Illinois to Missouri is about as wide as Redbud Lane in Ashland.

“You might want to be a little careful about pulling this trailer over that bridge,” Ronnie Basinger told me when I gave him my Louisiana Missouri, Champ Clark Bridge route plan. “I’ve seen trucks get their rear view mirrors knocked off. Basinger made sure I had a visual note that the trailer was wider than my SUV. Ronnie is a very careful guy.

“Hey, Amy,” I said in Springfield, “want to avoid St. Louis and see some of rural Illinois?”

I didn’t tell her about the bridge.

We arrived at the Champ Clark Bridge at the same time as an 18-wheeler carrying some foul-smelling animals. I never looked closely at the truck as I was busy instructing my daughter to unbuckle her seat belt as we were about to meet the truck.

“It will be easier for you to swim when we are sent flying into the river,” I informed her, forgetting that the fall would kill us both.

The Champ Clark Bridge – a half-mile span and only one of three bridges to connect Missouri and Illinois north of St. Louis – is due to be replaced in the next few years. The 87-year-old bridge was closed last fall as more than 1,500 rusted bolts were replaced. Imagine how I felt when I read that in an online story?

MoDot, the State of Illinois and federal dollars will combine to replace the bridge at a cost of $60 million. MoDot says the bridge is in “critical condition” – which explains why the Missouri legislature was the last to get their ducks in a row and cough up their share of the funding.

“That bridge is too narrow for farm machinery,” said a MoDot official in May. He conveniently left out U-Haul trailers in his “too wide to travel” list.

In recent years, there has been plenty of talk about replacing the Champ Clark Bridge, but this created specific challenges:

• An environmental study had to be performed. Of course.

• There’s worry about displacing Phil’s Gulf service station in Louisiana.

• A new entrance to a marina on the river might have to be built.

That might be a good idea, because if you don’t build a bigger bridge, they will need more boats in order to fish out the U-Haul trailers that go flying off the Champ Clark Bridge.

MoDot says they will utilize something called a “design-build” method which will expedite the new bridge building process. Hmmm….hope they remember to build the new one with two lanes.

Honestly, folks, you don’t have much longer to cross the Champ Clark Bridge. Hitch up a U-Haul trailer, and take a Sunday drive to Louisiana, then cross into Illinois. It’s a $60 million thrill ride.