Franklin County officials are looking to help a railroad improve freight service to Union, while also upgrading a controversial bridge.
The Missouri Eastern Railroad and its parent company, Joplin-based Jaguar Transport Holdings, are planning to apply for a $9.5 million grant through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program, said Jeff Van Schaick, Missouri Eastern Railroad senior vice president. The money is part of around $13 million the railroad plans to invest in its 40-mile route connecting Union to Maryland Heights, where the short line can switch freight to major railroads.
The line is part of a total of 60 miles Missouri Eastern took over in the region earlier this year.
Also part of the $13 million is a separate $598,419 grant Missouri Eastern was awarded for 2023 from the Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) Freight Enhancement Program Awards. According to MoDOT’s website, that grant is for rehabilitating sections of track in Union and a planned transload facility on Rock Road near the intersection with Old County Farm Road, just east of Highway 47.
Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said he met Wednesday, Oct. 19, with officials from Missouri Eastern, as well as Mary Lamie, executive vice president for multi-modal enterprises for Bi-State Development, about the grant application.
“They are trying to bring that rail up to a better service ability, and to be able to have rail more frequently and more safely to Franklin from St. Louis and back and forth,” Brinker said at Thursday’s meeting of the Franklin County Transportation Committee. “We spoke about a lot of area businesses that want to sign up, working with that greater service.”
Trains on the track between St. Louis and Union are currently allowed to go up to 10 mph because of current conditions, Brinker said. The upgrades would allow the speed to increase to 25 mph.
“It’s a four-hour trip each way, which is, kind of, cuckoo,” he said.
Missouri Eastern plans to install 38,000 cross-ties on the railroad and improve 2.4 miles of rail as part of the improvements, Brinker said.
“Beyond that, I think it’s a great opportunity for us and a great opportunity for businesses to take advantage of, keeping more trucks off the road and putting it on the railroad,” he said.
Brinker said he planned to write a letter to the managers of the federal grant endorsing the project. The other members of the transportation committee, made up of representatives of area communities and road districts, unanimously voted to support the project, as well.
Brinker said he emailed officials with a “caveat,” letting them know that, while he is excited about the rail project, he wants the railroad to put in writing that, if it is successful in getting the grant, it would improve the rail bridge on Highway 47 in Union, just north of the intersection with Highway 50, to accommodate the widening of Highway 47 to four lanes.
As part of its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, MoDOT approved nearly $86 million in safety and capacity improvements on Highway 47 between Washington and St. Clair earlier this year. While the agency is still determining what the improvements will look like, Brinker and other leaders are pushing for it to be expanded to a four-lane highway from the current two-lane alignment most of the route.
“That would help immensely,” Brinker said.
A widened bridge, along with improved rail access, would be a “win-win” for the area, Franklin County Highway Administrator Jim Grutsch said. “Because, right now MoDOT says that is the chokepoint on 47.”
Asked if MoDOT finds the railroad bridge to be the largest chokepoint on Highway 47, Stephen O’Connor, MoDOT area engineer for Franklin and Jefferson counties, wrote in an email to The Missourian that is a question that will be addressed as part of a conceptual study that will start in about a year. The study, which is being conducted by Kansas City-based HNTB “will look at issues, identify potential solutions, engage with the public and make recommendations.”
“If the bridge is considered an issue, the study will identify it and possibly recommend a solution,” wrote O’Connor, who is a member of the Franklin County Transportation Committee who was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting.