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By Michael Boyd Jr.
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
PERRYVILLE — While area residents seem to be extremely happy that there will be a brand new Chester Bridge that links the towns of Perryville, Mo., and Chester, Ill., one Valle Catholic alumni is proud to be the man in charge of the long-awaited project.
Brian Okenfuss, a 2002 graduate of VCHS, where he once played football and baseball for the Warriors, is the Chester Bridge Project Director for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
Okenfuss knows exactly how important the new bridge is to citizens from both the upper southeast Missouri and southern Illinois regions since he himself, along with friends and family, has crossed over the old bridge many times in his life.
Okenfuss applied to be the director of the bridge project and got the nod. It is a project he is thrilled to be in charge of.
“The bridge needed to be replaced and we needed somebody to lead the team to do that,” said Okenfuss, who formerly was the area engineer for MoDOT. “And it was really just an incredible opportunity and I applied for it, and I was selected to direct the project.”
Since the only other bridges across the Mississippi River around here are at St. Louis/East St. Louis and Cape Girardeau/East Cape Girardeau — nearly a full two hours between those crossings — Okenfuss is thrilled as everyone else that the old bridge is finally being replaced.
“Everyone’s excited. They just want a new bridge in place,” Okenfuss said. “It’s rare you can do a highway project and not get any negative feedback. And we’ve not received any negative feedback on this.”
Okenfuss did not compare the two parts of his MoDOT career, but said he enjoyed his time as area engineer. However, the opportunity for the Chester Bridge was a new and exciting opportunity.
As for building a major project near his hometown?
“Getting to build a bridge like this so close to home, it’s pretty incredible, so definitely loving the new job.” Okenfuss said. “It’s very interesting. I’m learning a lot from the design team and from the contractor. These guys are world class, and so getting to work with them is really great.”
According to Okenfuss, the new Chester Bridge is currently on schedule and they expect the project to completed by summer of 2026, weather permitting.
“July of 2026 is when we expect the new bridge to be open to traffic,” Okenfuss said, “and then it will take another four or five months to demolish the (current) bridge.”
Speaking of which, Okenfuss’ crew has managed to deal with the recent bad weather as well as week-long, sub-zero temperatures twice in just 2024 alone.
“It slows things down in some cases,” Okenfuss said. “But, the contractor’s kind of been working around it. The guys have been kind of dodging some of the ice floating down the river, but nothing that these guys haven’t dealt with before. They’re pretty good.”
So far, Okenfuss’ crew has been getting the bridge’s towers ready on the west side of the river, pouring the first section of the lower tower on the Missouri side.
“So if you drive there now, what you’ll see is a set of bright orange forms that stick about 35 feet in the air,” Okenfuss described. “They’re probably wrapped in blankets at this point, but you’ll see that first section of tower has been poured, and they’ll probably be setting forms for the second piece of the tower right adjacent to it.
“So, really as of (Thursday), we’ve started to go vertical. They’re starting to actually pour concrete on the towers as they’re coming up. They’re working in the middle of the river on the middle tower, working on the foundations, and pouring drilled shafts right now. Within another few weeks, we anticipate that they will start on the tower on the Illinois side.”
The Chester Bridge connects Missouri Route 51 (Perryville) and Illinois Route 150 (Chester).
The new bridge will have two 12-foot lanes — one lane east and one lane west just like the old bridge — with 10-foot shoulders on each side. It is being paid for with both federal and state money.
“The new bridge is going to be wider, really big,” Okenfuss said. “It will be much safer crossing once it’s all done. And like virtually all of our projects, there is federal money in it. I think on this one there’s 85% federal reimbursement and 15% split between our two states.”
Okenfuss is pleased to add that the wider lanes and shoulders will make an important group of people very happy.
“Agricultural traffic will be able to just pass across it,” he said. “The farmers don’t have to call in the police to shut down the bridge or anything, so I know the farmers are pretty well looking forward to it.”
For folks who are interested in seeing the new bridge’s progress, both MoDOT and IDOT (Illinois’ transportation department) have set up a timelapse video on each side of the bridge to view online at anytime.
For local viewers, go to www.modot.org/ChesterBridge, and both cameras are going.