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On the road again: Drivers talk about their experiences on the new Highway 40

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 24, 2010 - So how's the new Highway 40 (officially Interstate 64) working out for you?

It's been nearly two months since the highway reopened Dec. 7, but with "sight-seers," the holidays and a run of bad weather, it's only now that the traffic is adjusting to its new normal. 

Not surprisingly, St. Louis area drivers have a range of opinions -- everything from "It's great" to "We spent a half-billion dollars for this?" Still, love it or hate it, St. Louisans are glad the two-year closure of the highway is behind them.

In the Driver's seat

Like scores of other St. Louis area drivers, Robin Weatherall was looking forward to the re-opening of I-64 after the long two-year closure. And, like many motorists, he was hoping the new highway would shorten his commute. Weatherall, resident composer for the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, drives from his home in University City to the festival office in the Central West End several times a week.

He missed the opening week, but when he first drove to work three weeks later, he figured traveling Interstate 170 to Interstate 64 would be a snap. In fact, he was surprised to find it "just as slow as it ever was," he said.

"It's dreadful. They've made no improvement at all. There's still the same old backups. In fact, it's worse when you consider the traffic on 170 goes down to one lane to go onto 40. It just backs up like crazy." 

After trying a few more times, he finally abandoned the highway for a route he took during the closure: Olive to Skinker to Delmar to Walton. "It's quicker," he said.

Despite problems going east, he says going west on I-64 from I-170 is easier now.

"The access onto 40 and coming east from the west getting off on 170 is a great improvement. It really is," he said. "But going from 170 into St. Louis is atrocious."

Like other St. Louisans, Weatherall wonders why the Missouri Department of Transportation didn't widen the highway. "If you're closing it for a year, you might as well close it for another six months and widen it," he said.

Terry Moses, a Marlborough resident who drives I-64 west to get to his job in Clayton, also has complaints.

"I am amazed that it took two years to do this project and they didn't solve the problems I thought they were going to solve," he said. "Now they made the exchange off of 40 westbound to Hanley Road prettier. They made it made it nicer. They took the curve out of it, but you still have the line-up. They didn't solve that problem."

Moses said he's surprised that the connection to I-170 from Highway 40 is only one lane. "It's a one-lane ramp for Hanley and a one-lane ramp for 170. Thus you have the same line-up before they changed everything," he said.

"Here's this major upgrade to this major highway, and it's an interchange that's always been problematic on that highway and for whatever reason they didn't solve the problem. They may have eliminated problems along the line but they didn't eliminate this problem."

Brant Donis of Rock Hill doesn't like that drivers can no longer access Highway 40 directly from Brentwood Boulevard.

"I don't like the Brentwood/Hanley on-ramp set-up at all," he said, referring to eastbound traffic. He noted that drivers get the feeling they're going onto the highway "normally" at Brentwood but then have to take what he called a "parkway" (a stretch of road) to Hanley and "wait for a long light to get onto the highway."

Donis said he calls the section between Brentwood and Highway 40 a "parkway" because he doesn't know the real name for it.

"It's the strip of 'highway' between Brentwood and Hanley where you get stuck at the Hanley light before you can get onto the actual highway," he said. "Maybe we should call it the 'fakeway' because you're faked out that you're on the actual highway."

Donis said he would enter the highway from McKnight, but a three-way stop at the entrance to a nearby subdivision often has traffic congested there.

"Coming off the (eastbound) highway, south on McKnight, you don't have to stop, but all other directions you do," he said. "Really it was a stupid setup before and I am shocked some sort of alternative wasn't enacted with this huge project. I've gone a few times in that direction in the morning, and it's still backed up to the Tilles Park area."

Not all drivers are unhappy with the new highway. John Newmark, a Brentwood resident who lives nears I-64 and Brentwood, drives it to work downtown every day and is enthusiastic about it.

"Driving to work the Monday the highway opened was a pleasure; an unusual experience for a Monday morning," he said. "The rain that came later in the week didn't even completely wash away the joy.

Newmark calls the upgrade to Big Bend, allowing drivers to get on and off in all directions, "a welcome addition. I'm happy with what they have done, and I am definitely happy the construction is finally completed."

Jamieson Spencer of Des Peres also likes the new road. "I think it's great," he said. "It's very attractive looking."

But, he says he's disappointed MoDOT didn't widen the highway near Clayton Road in the city. Still, the project was necessary to fix deteriorating bridges along the road, Spencer said. "Overall I'm glad we did it," he said. "It needed to be done."

Creve Coeur resident Janet Cuenca doesn't drive I-64 very often anymore, but she enjoys it when she does.

"I can admire it as a project finished and I'm proud of the fact that they got it done ahead of schedule and below budget," she said. "I'm always in favor of things that get done well and they did get done well.

"Like other people I miss seeing trees and so forth but I know when they get the planting done, I know it will fill out and look better."

bumpy road for business smooths out

If anyone could have been happier than local drivers that construction was over, it may have been business owners in areas affected by the highway's shutdown.

"All I've heard (from business owners) since the (Big Bend) bridge opened and the highway opened is a sigh of relief," Rachelle L'Ecuyer, Maplewood's director of community development, said. "Everybody, especially on Big Bend, has said things are just so much better."

One business, St. Louis Cellars, has reported that business increased dramatically after Big Bend opened, L'Ecuyer said.

The closure of Big Bend in the second phase really hit area businesses hard, she said. "At one point Hanley and Big Bend were closed at the same time. That was really, really hard for everybody. That was huge."

L'Ecuyer said some businesses on Manchester saw more traffic because of the closure and were "getting customers they never had before." Some motorists, driving through the municipality on alternate routes to get to work and noticed businesses they came back to visit on Saturdays.

One good thing came out of the closure. It forced businesses to "figure out ways to connect with their customers and get people to their shops," L'Ecuyer said. "People worked really hard to keep in touch with their clients and customers."

Helen Stewart, owner of Tigerlilly Gifts and Monograms in Maplewood, said she noticed that she got a lot of calls from people asking how to get to her shop, and her daughter, who works later in the afternoon, said people often called saying it was impossible to get to the store by 5 p.m. because of traffic congestion.

The road to success

MoDOT officials say the highway is "working very well." They were, however, taken aback by what they called "sight-seers" who turned out to experience the highway during the first week it was opened.

"I was thinking some people are going to be out looking around, but I didn't expect them to do that during rush hour," Ed Hassinger, MoDOT district engineer, said. "I figured the sight-seers would probably take a nice trip during lunch."

The "sight-seers" dropped off in week two and even more by the holidays, he said.

But at least on one day early on, the morning rush hour traffic saw almost double the traffic it did in 2007, he added.

While MoDOT's getting a lot of positive feedback on the road, some people "want to project the benefits of this project far beyond its limits," Hassinger said. "They were thinking it was going to fix all the congestion going across the Poplar Street Bridge and all the congestion going west through Mason and Clarkson Valley but there never was any intention to do that."

The new Mississippi River bridge will ultimately help congestion on the Poplar Street Bridge, but the congestion to the west is another issue, he said.

However, auto wrecks cause most of highway congestion in the St. Louis area, Hassinger said. "We can't fix people being irresponsible drivers," he added.

Hassinger noted that while the reconstruction has eased congestion in some areas, it was never designed for the road to be free flowing.

"You can't expect that this is going to be free flowing all the time during those heaviest periods of rush hour," he said. "We don't design roads to work as free flow. That's just a waste of money. The impact to do that would just be something people couldn't live with."

People critical of MoDOT for not adding an extra lane forget or don't know the history of the project, Hassinger said.

"That decision not to add another lane was a regional decision," he said. Adding another lane would have cost 200 more homes and "big chunks of Forest Park," he added.

"The facts today are that that section of road is carrying more traffic than when we closed it and it's doing it with (shorter) travel times than in 2007 and we did it without taking that large number of homes or Forest Park. You've have to look at the whole picture."

MoDOT had warned motorists before the highway opened that driving it would be a new driving experience because the interchanges are different.

"We noticed early on the first day and even on the second day some confusion about what lane you needed to be in and where the exits were and a lot of that is smoothing out," he said. "People are figuring out how everything works.

"We're seeing a lot of places where we have dual left-hand turn lanes like at Hanley to get onto the highway and people aren't using the second left-turn lane. Little things like that we're noticing that we think as people get more used to the road, they will use the dual left-turn lanes."

Something new on the highway are the gray concrete sound walls separating the highway from nearby residences. Some drivers call them unsightly, but other motorists are more empathic.

"If they're helping the people who would have been subjected to all the sound and if it's better for them, then very good," Weatherall said. "I don't care. I'm watching the road, not the countryside."

Newmark agreed. "They're not exactly pretty to look at, but when you're driving 60 miles per hours, you care less about aesthetics."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered transportation.

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