St. Louis motorists got some relief from their traffic woes recently with the long-awaited reopening of Forest Park Parkway, one of the major routes from mid-St. Louis County to downtown.
The portions of the parkway from Big Bend to Central Avenue had been closed since April 2003 for the construction of the cross-county MetroLink line.
Some sections of the road had been closed for three years. Additional sections were closed in June and July 2003 and the last section — from Central Avenue to Brentwood Boulevard — was closed in mid-2004.
MetroLink is St. Louis’ light rail system. The new line adds 8 mi. (12.9 km) of track into Clayton, the county seat, and suburban Shrewsbury.
While most of the parkway was reopened this spring, a section remained closed until recently to allow workers to install large concrete panels designed to screen nearby houses from the parkway and the MetroLink line.
Dianne Williams, spokesperson of Metro, said the greatest challenge to the project was by far the utility conflicts crews encountered. “They have been huge,” she said.
“The very first thing we had to do was to build a brand new 9-foot diameter sewer in order to move all of the sewer facilities that were located under the parkway where the tunnel was going to be built,” she said. “And then all of the electric lines had to be moved, all of the gas lines had to be moved, all the water lines had to be moved.”
Forest Park Parkway was the oldest utility corridor in the region, Williams said. “That’s where everybody put everything, and it all had to be moved,” she added.
“There were many surprises along the way because when you’ve got something that was put in the ground 50 or 80 years ago, they didn’t do what we now call as-built drawings,” William said. “They would go in with a plan but if there was an obstacle and a problem, they’d just come up with a solution in the field and not worry about it. So sometimes where the utility company thought their facilities had been installed was not where you found them. So then you have to go and gently look for them.”
Williams said crews constructed a barrier next to the edge of the roadway on the section immediately east of Central Avenue and along the Bemiston on-ramp in Clayton. That section opened later than the rest.
“The crane that installs these panels took up the entire parkway” requiring that section to remain closed she said. Installation work at the Clayton Station at Central also required crane work and work on the elevator that also took up roadway lanes.
The barriers are technically precast visual barriers but they will block the sound, Williams said.
After a portion of the parkway opened, officials began receiving complaints about noise from residents along the route who also complained that more trucks are using the parkway.
Despite the fact that the overall MetroLink project lagged by approximately a year, Williams said no timetable had been set for the reopening of the parkway. Its opening met “part of the terms of the original plans that were determined by East-West Gateway Council of Governments,” she said.
“I don’t believe we had a specific reopening date at the time that it was closed because it depends on weather and construction progress and there were aspects that hadn’t really been determined” when the project began, she said.
Three contractors did the work. Tarlton Corp. did the section from east of DeBaliviere Avenue to Kingsland Avenue; McCarthy did the section from Kingsland to Ritz Carlton Drive and Fred Weber Inc. did the section near the Ritz Carlton Hotel and behind the Enterprise Rent-a-Car parking structure.
While Williams said the newly opened road has met with enthusiastic response from many motorists, some drivers have said the road is difficult to drive because the shoulder is very narrow in some stretches and they feel boxed in. Observers also have said that the traffic volume on the parkway has been light since it reopened.
“All the sections we rebuilt are wonderful — you have brand new pavement, brand new drainage,” Williams said. “It’s great. In fact, some people have actually commented that the few sections that didn’t have to be rebuilt really suffer by comparison now. New pavement is always nice.”
David Wrone, a spokesperson of the St. Louis County Highway Dept. said he hasn’t received any feedback “one way or another” on the issue.
“Commentary just hasn’t come my way,” he said. “I guess you could take that as there hasn’t been a problem or that the complaints are just going elsewhere. I personally haven’t heard anything.
“Unfortunately, the physical limitations we were obliged to work with were unusual but necessary. Certainly an accident on that road is something we hope never happens but it almost inevitably will, and when it does, it will be dealt with as an on-case basis. It’s something we’re certainly concerned about but given the limitations of MetroLink and the road has to share the same limited space, there wasn’t a whole lot of room literally speaking to work with on that.”
Garry Earls, director of the department, agreed noting that snow removal may be difficult with the narrow shoulders.
“Snow removal is something we’ll have to work extra diligently to perform,” he said. “I think we can do snow removal in almost all circumstances. Depending on how much snow we’re talking about, we may actually have to haul it away.”
Parts of the parkway could be closed for crews to do that, he said.
An unusual drainage system built into the road will help remove melted snow, he said. “I believe we will be able to melt a lot of the ice and snow and run it off, and where we can’t do that, we’ll mechanically remove it and carry it away.”
But snow wouldn’t be a problem in a year like 2006. “Last winter we didn’t have any snow to remove,” he said.
The drainage system also will help keep water from accumulating during times of heavy rains, Earls said.
“The same canyon effects [in the roadway that impact snow removal] require a substantial increase in drainage from the roadway,” he said.
Earls said the road does meet the minimum standards “for that kind of roadway.”
He added, “It’s not uncommon in various urban areas throughout the country to have restricted access in places. The best thing for us is to set safe standards, keep the traffic moving at similar paces so they don’t run into one another so we don’t have accumulations in those areas.
“It might surprise you to know areas like that have a relatively low [accident] rate because there’s no opposing traffic there and no access to get other disseminating traffic into the place. Generally speaking, if you keep all of the traffic similar, you reduce the problem.”
He said keeping bicycles, motorcycles and other such vehicles off the parkway helps.
“There are some very tight places, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “I would certainly have preferred it worked out some other way. Any highway is better if you could built it in the middle of Kansas instead of right through the middle of Clayton and University City but I didn’t have a choice.
“We need to get from the middle of Clayton to downtown St. Louis and that was the best route available to us.”
Along a third of a mile stretch from Bemiston east to Pershing in University City there are “two or three spots through there where there’s just no room for shoulders,” he said. The situation exists on both sides of the road, he added.
Traffic on the parkway has been light since it reopened, Earls said. That may be because people don’t realize the road has reopened or because they developed new habits of getting to their destination that they have not yet broken.
“It’s not getting the usage yet,” he said. “People develop habits and they start using other routes. I think many people who used to use Forest Park Parkway before as an access route are now using Highways 40 and 170, as tough as that intersection is. Many of them may also be using a combination of Clayton Road and Hanley Road, again as tough as those roadways are at some peak times.”
But Earls said he believes using other routes is a temporary situation and motorists will eventually return to the parkway.
“I believe over time they will gravitate back and use that road,” he said. Construction crews still have barrels along some of the route which, along with people choosing alternate routes to avoid construction interference, probably discourages usage among motorists, he added.
“Regardless of how hard you work to inform them,” some motorists don’t realize the parkway has reopened,” he said.
Earls said no vehicle counts have been taken on the reopened roadway. Instead, officials are waiting until all the signs of construction have been eliminated and motorists have time to reestablish their driving patterns. CEG