With a small band of protesters watching nearby, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) broke ground April 6 in Richmond Heights for the largest project in its history — the reconstruction of a 10.5-mi. (16 km) section of I-64/40 through St. Louis.
Several state and local government officials attended, but Richmond Heights Mayor Betty Humphries was noticeably missing from the event. She boycotted it because she felt MoDOT was “insensitive” for holding the ceremony where several homes would be torn down to make way for the renovated highway.
The ceremony went off without a hitch, despite the presence of the protesters who wore buttons that said, “Stop MoDOT From Closing 40.”
State Rep. Scott Muschany, a Republican from Frontenac, was there urging MoDOT to amend its contract with Gateway Constructors, the team selected to build the project, to eliminate the total shutdown of the highway for a time during construction. He called for keeping at least two lanes of the highway open at all times.
MoDOT officials said it was too late for the change and that the plan to close a section of the road in 2008 was the best way to accomplish the project. Though it will be painful, the total closure approach will save time and money in the long run, officials said.
The reconstruction of St. Louis’ major east-west artery is the first design-build project MoDOT has ever undertaken, and officials are hoping it will become a model for future projects.
The reconstruction of a 10.5-mi. stretch between west of Sarah Street in mid-town St. Louis to Spoede Road in west St. Louis County is the biggest single contract MODOT has ever done and also is the highway’s first major design change since it was built. Crews will reconstruct 29 bridges and 12 interchanges in the project, which is slated to be completed in 2009. MoDOT awarded a $535 contract to Gateway Constructors in April to do the project.
Crews began demolition of the homes and closed some lanes on I-170 to prepare it for the reconstruction of its interchange with Highway 40. Lanes on Highway 40 will not be affected during peak hours until early next year.
At least one bystander at the groundbreaking ceremony expressed support for the project.
Earl Finger, a retired computer programmer, applauded MoDOT for its decision to close the highway entirely for several months although he said he is concerned about the closing’s impact on motorists.
He said the project is “really a safety issue.”
He called MoDOT’s plan to do the work in three phases — closing the entire highway for a time — a good one.
“I do not buy the idea of keeping lanes open,” he said. “That will increase expenses and would probably take longer. It’s really a safety issues for construction workers. We’ve had several killed in this area. In my opinion, they’ve chosen a good plan and the construction is necessary.”
But several of the protesters said the plan will hurt them and others. Closing the highway will bring gridlock so intense that some of them want to sell their homes to escape it, but homes aren’t moving in their area because no one wants to be trapped by the gridlock many are expecting, they said. They said getting anywhere from where they live could take hours, because the 170,000 motorists that normally use Highway 40 will be clogging nearby arterial roads. Several said they also worry about how the closing will impact business on the Highway 40 corridor.
Despite that, MoDOT said its plan, while it will be painful for the duration of the project, is ultimately the best solution for the long term.
Meanwhile, city of St. Louis crews are on a marathon race to improve streets, fix broken traffic lights and find ways to improve traffic flow on city streets to aid motorists seeking alternative routes to Highway 40. The city expects to spend $7 million in the next three years toward that goal.
“It’s going to be tough for a couple of years but when it’s done it will be worth it,” Missouri Highways and Transportation Commissioner Bill McKenna said during the groundbreaking ceremony.
Sue Cronin, a resident of Brentwood who lives on a dead-end street off of Manchester Road, said she wondered if MoDOT has done public safety studies related to the project.
Dan Galvin, public information manager of Gateway Constructors, said that MoDOT has no choice but to move forward with the plan.
“If we don’t do it, we know what happened over I-55 with that bridge that just collapsed,” he said, referring to a bridge that suddenly collapsed recently. “The Tamm Avenue bridge [over Highway 40] is designed just like that one,” he said. “We’re retrofitting it for the short term until we can demo it. But there are lots of other structures in the same condition. You ride down this highway and stop and look at the condition it’s in and you’ll see exposed rebar and crumbling concrete everywhere. Something’s got to be done.”
And that means a total shutdown for Highway 40 for a time, he said.
“The problem is it has to be done this way,” he said. “It’s the only way this project will work. We don’t have any room to build the new freeway alongside the old one.” Keeping the highway open throughout the project would add four years to the project, he added.
Asked how the protesters will impact the project, Galvin replied, “They won’t and they realize that. I think that’s why there’s so much anger because they know it’s not going to change.”
Changing the contract to allow Highway 40 to stay partially open throughout the duration of the project would have taken “a few hundred million dollars more” to buy additional land to build a new highway alongside the old,” he said.
Closing the bridges one at a time to rebuild them would take “decades,” Galvin said. “We have 29 bridges we’re rebuilding and each bridge takes four to six months.”
“The first couple of weeks of construction in ’08 and ’09 — it’s going to be unpleasant, no question about it,” he said. “But when people figure out different ways of getting around, it will be an acceptable level of congestion.
“The problem is, it has to be done this way — that’s the only way this project will work.” CEG