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Looming I-64 Project Worries MO Drivers

Wed March 15, 2006 - Midwest Edition
Kathie Sutin



St. Louis area motorists who routinely use I-64/40 to get to work and do business were shaking in their boots for months when the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) appeared ready to close the expressway for three years of reconstruction.

Even without construction, the highway is often a rush-hour nightmare with long stretches of bumper-to-bumper traffic slowing to a halt. To make matters worse, motorists heading out of downtown to the residential suburbs have to deal with “sunshine slowdowns” as they head west.

The thought of having to find alternative ways to work on secondary roads had some people wondering how they would get there. Business owners along the route worried about business dropping off because motorists would have difficulty reaching their shops.

And some cities whose streets were likely to get the construction traffic from the interstate were quick to ban trucks from the major roads that pass through their municipalities.

The reconstruction of a 12-mi. stretch between west of Sarah Street in mid-town St. Louis to Spoede Road in west St. Louis County will be MODOT’s biggest single contract and its first design-build project. It also is the highway’s first major design change since it was built.

MODOT said the worries over living without Highway 40, are unfounded and the result of a big misunderstanding.

The transportation agency has asked contractor teams planning to bid on the project to put together their best plan for how they would build the project and their schedule for doing it, Linda Wilson, a MODOT spokeswoman, said.

“We left it open to them to come up with the best plan to build the project in the shortest amount of time but still maintain regional traffic flow. A lot of people interpreted that to mean — and it got sort of twisted in some of the media — that MODOT’s plan was to close it … [the road] for four years which we never said.

“It’s not like the day they start construction, they’re going to close it and then open it when it’s finished. That has relieved a lot of people, although I’m not sure that was ever on the table in the first place.”

MODOT talked to the two contractor teams planning to bid on the project and neither one said they considered closing the road for three years as a serious option, Wilson said.

The teams announced that neither one was planning to close the entire highway for the entire four years of construction, she said.

But, Wilson cautioned, some shutdowns certainly will occur.

“Lanes will be closed, ramps will be closed, interchanges will be closed, possibly Highway 40 itself may be closed but not for the entire duration of the project,” she said.

“There’s no way for us to build or rebuild 12 miles of roadway, 12 interchanges in less than four years and keep everything open all of the time. That’s just impossible. We want to make sure the public understand there are going to be closures.”

No details are available at this time on when certain sections of the road will be closed, Wilson said. That information won’t fall in place until MODOT hires a contractor in the fall and they come up with “a high-level construction staging plan,” she said.

“Then as we get deeper into the schedule and as things are happening, we will be providing daily, weekly, monthly and probably long-term information to the public on what’s happening today, next week, next month and roughly what’s going to be happening six months from now.”

The reason details can’t be sketched out months in advance is that they “will constantly be changing,” Wilson said. “There’s just so much that has to be done so quickly. The only thing we know for sure is all 12 miles and all 12 interchanges will not be closed for four years.”

Motorists have asked Wilson about different scenarios.

“Anything is possible,” she said. “Pick any given time in that three and a half year period and there probably will be a time when an interchange is closed, when a lane is closed, when a ramp is closed. Or we might have the whole thing shut down over a weekend or a week.”

MODOT is stressing to the contractors that they still must keep traffic moving no matter which they do, Wilson said.

“They can’t look at this in tunnel vision where we just want to close it and do their stuff and get out of the way,” she said. “They have to figure out a way if they’re going to close something, how are they going to keep traffic moving somewhere, somehow, someway.”

MODOT has taken a lot of criticism for not widening the road in more places. Plans called for adding an extra lane only for approximately 4 mi. from Interstate 170 to Spoede Road.

Some motorists wanted the state to widen the expressway from I-170 eastward until it meets a four-lane section that goes through Forest Park.

But many houses sit close to the expressway in that area. Buying a lot of property is costly. More importantly, the people along the way and Richmond Heights, their city, wanted to lose as few homes as possible.

City officials fought almost every inch of the state’s plans for that area with tenacity, experts and lawyers. The transportation agency negotiated numerous changes with the city.

Rather than see the rebuilding stalled by a lengthy lawsuit, officials conceded the last two issues to the city, agreeing to rebuild interchanges at Big Bend Boulevard and Bellevue Avenue in place.

Instead, MODOT would improve traffic flow by creating continuous exit-only lanes between interchanges and eliminating some of the steep hills on the road.

Grades motorists can’t see over add to the slowdown they experience on Highway 40, Wilson said.

“As a driver, when you can’t see what’s coming, you slow down,” she said. “When that happens, there’s a ripple effect with the cars behind them.

“So by smoothing out the hills a little bit, improving the interchanges and adding exit-only lanes, we can get a tremendous amount of increased traffic flow without adding an extra lane in each direction,” she said.

Another factor that will improve traffic flow is the reconstruction of the I-170 interchange.

“That interchange in and of itself is the crux of many of the traffic problems,” Wilson said. Morning and evening backups there often stem from that interchange, which is right in the middle of the project, she said.

Currently, eastbound motorists wanting to get from Highway 40 to I-170 must exit Highway 40 and travel a short distance on Brentwood Boulevard and Galleria Plaza before reaching I-170.

Motorists heading westbound on Highway 40 can go directly to Interstate 170, but the approach is backed up in rush hours.

Similarly, motorists on I-170 can go to Highway 40 in either direction, but the approach lanes are short and stacked up in busy times.

“The Brentwood, Innerbelt and Hanley Road exits are very short and close together and that creates backups,” Wilson said. “You have very short on and off ramps so people are trying to make these maneuvers but there’s not enough room to do it and they’e crossing each other,” she said.

The state is redesigning the three interchanges so they will function as one big interchange with lanes that will separate “those different movements as much as possible so you’re not crossing on top of each other,” she said.

Wilson said she herself notices the problem every time she drives that section of the road. When motorists in the evening get past where “Hanley and the 170 traffic is all kind of merging on top of each other, it just kind of opens up” and traffic begins moving quickly again, she said.

“A lot of that slow down is all that maneuvering,” which will be fixed just by making the three interchanges work better together, she said.

The road is the major thoroughfare that started as a feeder of commuters from the west to jobs in or near downtown St. Louis. Today traffic flows almost equally in both directions in rush hours.

The expressway also serves several major hospitals and such major attractions as Forest Park, the Zoo, Art Museum and St. Louis Science Center. Anchored by the Galleria shopping mall, the area at the Highway 40 and I-170 is a major shopping destination.

The state built the stretch of the expressway in pieces between the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Contractors constructed a segment from McCutcheon Road westward in the 1930s and 40s as well as the segment across Forest Park. The state added the connection between these segments in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Old-timers remember that the road east of Skinker was called the “Red Feather Highway” and the “Daniel Boone Expressway” from McCutcheon westward.

In 1988 the expressway became part of the Interstate Highway System, as an extension of Interstate 64. Despite the new name and the spiffy new road signs, the highway was not updated to match its new designation. In fact, engineers call it “functionally obsolete,” Wilson said.

The highway was designed for traffic moving at 45 mph, Wilson said. Entrance and exit ramps are short and loop ramps are tight, and hills along the roadway decrease sight distances and increase stopping distances.

With age comes deterioration, another problem the highway faces. The highway’s original concrete foundation is literally crumbling away, she said. Maintenance crews must routinely remove loose pieces of concrete from bridges to keep them from falling on motorists and pedestrians.

MODOT chose to do a design-build project because of its speed and efficiency.

“The benefit to doing design-build is the project gets done faster and definitely more efficiently,” Wilson said. “It’s perfect for projects like this — sort of big and complicated. ”

Design-build makes sense from the contractor’s view point, she added. “We have 12 miles and 12 interchanges to do. Normally, we would do this project one interchange at a time. You could potentially have 12 different contractors working out there sort of bumping into each other. By putting it all together in one great big package, it just works so much smoother.”

Normally, MODOT uses a design-bid-build system by designing a project, putting it out for the contractors to bid on it and awarding the contractor with the lowest price tag.

With design-build, however, MODOT will provide conceptual drawings, the footprint of the property and hire a contract team to design the work and build project.

“It’s not a low bid,” Wilson said. “It’s called a best value. We actually have a set budget of $410 million, and we have a set deadline of October 1, 2010.”

Following MODOT’s request for qualifications several months ago, two teams have been identified for the bid process, Wilson said.

On Feb. 27, MODOT issued a request for proposals that “tells them this is what we’re looking for in your proposal to us,” she said. A final RFP will be issued in early summer.

In the fall the teams will submit their proposals on how they will do it and “explain what they are going to give us for $410 million and how they will meet or beat our deadline,” Wilson said. “They also have to give us their plan for handling traffic and a plan for talking to the public [during construction]. It’s a complete package they have to give us.”

Then MODOT will evaluate and rate the proposals, she said. But the lowest bidder may not necessarily get the contract. “Whichever one give us the best value gets the contract,” Wilson said.

Wilson said MODOT will award the contract in November or December with construction beginning in early 2007.

With design-build projects, contractors typically get a first notice to proceed after which they begin the design work. A couple of months after that they get a second notice to proceed to start construction.

The reconstruction of Highway 40 has been a long time coming. MODOT looked at widening it in the early ’90s but “it got shot down pretty quickly,” Wilson said.

In the mid 1990s, MODOT did a major transportation investment analysis, a long-range plan looking at MetroLink and the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council to determine what needed to be done for all forms of transportation in the St. Louis area. The result is the plan MODOT is about to embark on, Wilson said.

At that time, it was decided not to add new lanes east of I-170 because the traffic volume east of I-170 is actually 30,000 vehicles per day less than traffic west of I-170, she said. Approximately170,000 vehicles travel west of the Innerbelt every day while 140,000 vehicles travel east of it, she said.

The ramp at Oakland will be changed in the reconstruction, and the Hampton Avenue ramp will no longer have traffic go “right up to the light,” Wilson said. “Our conceptual idea is that it would be moved just slightly to the north and would be a single point interchange so the ramps would come into the middle,” she said. “It’ll be a little more gradual and smooth.”

Redesigning the ramps will greatly aid traffic flow, Wilson said. One of the exits is signed for 15 to 20 mph, she said.

“They were all designed in the 1930s and 40s and 50s. They’re just a very old design. They’re out of date and we need them updated.

“Everyone wants to jump to the solution that you need to add lanes, but you can make tremendous improvements in traffic flow without additional lanes. There are multiple things going on there.”

She cited the problems with I-170 and a hill at Hanley Road that slows traffic down.

“We’re going to smooth that out and add more exit lanes,” she said. CEG