Bickering between Missouri and Illinois over how to fund the sorely needed Mississippi River bridge at St. Louis stalled the $670 million project for years. Now that construction is in full swing, the two states are differing again, debating what the span should be named — and who has the prevailing authority to do it.
The disagreement appeared to deepen this week, when the Illinois House voted 109-0 on a resolution for the Interstate 70 crossing to be dubbed the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Never mind that Missouri lawmakers and key members of Congress from both states insist the bridge, scheduled to open next year, should bear the name of late St. Louis Cardinals icon Stan "The Man" Musial —"the Stan Span," for short.
The two ideas have at least one commonality, albeit slight: Musial, the Hall of Famer and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who died in January at age 92, was a veteran, having served in the Navy during World War II.
Beyond that, there's little to bridge the states' divide over what to call the region's first span across the Mississippi in more than four decades.
Leading the charge on the Veterans Memorial Bridge moniker, Illinois Rep. Jay Hoffman — a Democrat from Belleville, just east of St. Louis and a towering Musial statue gracing Busch Stadium — insisted Thursday that's not a slight to Musial, widely considered the greatest Cardinals player ever.
Calling Musial "a huge hero of mine," Hoffman said he's among the lawmakers who have promised veterans they'd pursue universally honoring their service with the bridge.
"I understand everyone's request to name the bridge after Stan Musial. He was a great man for the area and a great man for the country," said Hoffman, a self-professed lifelong Cardinals fan who wore No. 6, Musial's jersey number, during his high school baseball career. "And I think if he was around, he'd say it'd be more appropriate to recognize all veterans."
Hoffman said that if his measure clears the Illinois General Assembly, he'd reach out to Missouri lawmakers to encourage them to follow suit.
But the prospect of Hoffman getting his way in Missouri appears as murky as the river itself.
In April, the Missouri House voted 147-0 in favor of a measure naming the span the Stan Musial Memorial Bridge, adding momentum to the push by Cardinals fans since Musial's death. The Missouri Senate overwhelmingly signed off on that idea last week, sending the measure back to the House with amendments.
And in March, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill to name the span after Musial, the three-time MVP and seven-time batting champ who spent his entire 22-year career with the Cardinals and help guide them to three World Series titles.
The congressional measure — introduced by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, and backed by her Republican colleague, Roy Blunt, along with their Illinois counterparts — now is being considered by the House.
"Stan was a true hero to so many Americans, both on and off the field," Blunt after the measure advanced. "This is a great way for us remember his legacy for years to come."
A spokeswoman for Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, recently suggested that whatever the states decide may be moot, insisting that Congress and the president hold naming rights because the project involves federal aid — some $240 million of it.
To McCaskill, honoring Musial is a no-brainer.
"As most St. Louisans know, folks that live on the Illinois side of the St. Louis region are by and large Cardinals fans," she told The Associated Press recently. "They aren't cheering for the (Chicago) Cubs. I think it (naming the bridge) is something that unites the two states."
Fat chance, given the years Missouri and Illinois spent feuding before the first shovel was turned on the planned four-lane, cable-stayed bridge meant to relieve the 50-year-old Poplar Street Bridge, one of just two in the nation that accommodate three freeways.
As part of a lingering squabble over how to finance the bridge, Missouri insisted that it be a tollway — a notion flatly rejected by Illinois as potentially onerous for tens of thousands of its residents who commute daily to St. Louis and its Missouri suburbs.
Illinois later proposed a sister bridge to an existing span, calling it affordable at $450 million. Missouri said it wasn't a long-term solution.
Both states ended the impasse in early 2008, announcing a compromise after Missouri relented on the tolls.
Hoffman believes diplomacy can be the name of the game.
"This is not in any way saying Missouri is wrong or that federal lawmakers are wrong by wanting to name this after a great man," he said. But, "this is not something states should have a grand debate over."