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MoDOT to Work Out Poplar St. Bridge Issues

Wed February 14, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Kathie Sutin

Torturously long lines left many motorists crossing the Poplar Street Bridge, the I-64/55 bridge, a major connection between Missouri and Illinois at St. Louis singing the blues because of months of repair and lane closures.

Thousands of motorists from both states use the bridge on their daily commute to work, and the bridge is on a major cross-country route. It carries approximately 121,000 vehicles a day.

But that tune is a thing of the past with the $12 million project completed two weeks earlier than the completion date of Oct. 15. The completion of the bridge ended the nightmare that had plagued motorists since June.

As a result, Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) Spokesperson Tom Miller declared he was “absolutely ecstatic” with the progress.

Miller bore the brunt of the many calls from unhappy motorists over the lane closures that had vehicles backed up for miles in long delays.

“Keeley and Sons [contractor of the project] worked around the clock to get this project completed before their deadline,” Miller said. “It was priority number one to get the Poplar Street Bridge completed early.”

Some minor finishing work remained. “But we lifted the permanent lane restrictions, which is always the biggest impact anytime you have that on an Interstate highway,” he said. “That causes the greatest disruption of traffic.”

But the early finish was not inexpensive. It cost MoDOT $25,000 a day — approximately $450,000 in total. The payment was an incentive for early completion of the project, Miller said.

The incentive or disincentive clauses in roadway construction contracts take into account what it would really cost motorists in terms of delay, gas expenditures and commerce delays, Miller said. MoDOT decided it was worth $25,000 a day if the contractor could “get it open that much earlier,” Miller said. “That’s savings that can be passed on to drivers and commerce so we do budget for that.”

MoDOT officials tried to plan the project to be completed in the shortest amount of time possible.

“We knew this was going to be an extreme challenge to our commuters,” Miller said. “We knew that we could only do it for a short amount of time and the quicker we could get that done, the better. Even in an aggressive construction schedule like we had, to get it done early is just an added bonus to our motorists.”

Crews overlayed the bridge deck with an epoxy mixture designed to last approximately 10 years during the summer months. The material could not be laid when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees on the deck or when the humidity was high.

“Crews worked during the weekends and it was just good fashioned planning and hard work from our contractor and, of course, our folks facilitating that work as well,” Miller said.

The challenge in the project was taking into consideration the major events of the summer such as St. Louis Cardinal baseball games, Fair St. Louis (the city’s big Fourth of July celebration) and events at Gateway International Raceway in nearby Madison, Ill. and all the other events going on in downtown St. Louis over the summer.

“Somehow, somewhere, we had to squeeze additional lane closures in there to actually do an overlay like we did on this project,” Miller said. “Then, in addition to that, you have to have ramps during the duration of a weekend and that’s very challenging to do during large event weekends, which happened almost every weekend in St. Louis. That was the challenge.”

Miller called the Poplar Street Bridge project “one of the more frustrating projects this year.”

“It had the greatest amount of impact, especially initially when people were not used to the traffic patterns and planning ahead to use alternative routes,” Miler added.

“Anytime you shut down lanes permanently, it takes a little bit of time for traffic patterns to stabilize and people to get into a routine of alternate routes. Therefore, the traffic patterns were up and down and they were frustrating for people.”

Miller said he could not say how long the average delays were.

“We were seeing delays of 15 to 20 minutes worse than normal on the Poplar Street Bridge after traffic patterns began to stabilize,” he said. But stalled vehicles, crashes and special events delayed traffic even longer. During the peak of construction, some motorists complained that delays were an hour or more.

Some motorists saw the bridge nightmare as a harbinger of things to come when MoDOT begins reconstruction of I-64 through St. Louis next year.

Miller wasn’t so quick to draw parallels.

“The traffic control plan is not set yet for that project,” he said. The traffic control plan is to be submitted as part of the bid by the two design/build teams that will be bidding on the project.

Still, Miller knows the anticipated traffic woes with the reconstruction of the major east-west corridor through the city will probably become a reality.

Even though MoDOT “pre-promoted” the Poplar Street Bridge construction, motorists still took a wait-and-see attitude.

“They want to see what it’s going to be like and then when they’re stuck in the middle of it, then they start to change their habits,” he said.

Miller noted that MetroLink could not carry that burden.

But if commuters took MetroLink to its capacity and two to five percent of the rest of commuters carpooled, found alternative routes or worked non-traditional hours, it would ease tremendously the jams on the heavily used routes, he said. CEG

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