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Economy & Business

Checking in on the Grand Bridge project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2011 - When St. Louis closed the Grand Boulevard Bridge on March 14 for repairs, Barbara MacRobie thought she would run into traffic delays commuting from her home in Webster Groves to her job as communications manager for Dance St. Louis, located in Grand Center.

Before the closure, MacRobie would take I-44 to the Grand exit. After testing detour routes, she now takes Big Bend Boulevard to I-64 and exits at Grand. "I've been amazed; it may even be faster than my previous commute," she said.

Not all travelers have been as lucky as MacRobie. Gregory DeLassus, a senior research assistant at Saint Louis University, has run into more travel problems since the bridge closed. DeLassus works at SLU's Doisy Research Center, on the south side of the bridge, and takes classes three nights a week at SLU's School of Law, on the north side of the bridge.

Commuting between SLU's two campuses by bus became a "pain in the neck," he said, because MetroBus had to reroute down to Union Station and then back up to Grand Boulevard. Instead of the bus, DeLassus usually rides his bike to class and in the evenings to his home in St. Louis' Dutchtown neighbornood. Though Compton Avenue is closer to his home, he does not prefer this detour route.

"The (Compton) Bridge is even worse than Grand Bridge in terms of poor surface and lighting," he said.

Both of these stories demonstrate the impact the closure of the Grand Bridge has on those who live or work in downtown St. Louis.

City officials held a news conference March 1 to announce the March 14 closure of the Grand Bridge, which spans from Chouteau Avenue to I-64. The $22 million project will replace the 50-year-old bridge and may take up to two years to complete.

Officials said the on- and off-ramps to I-64 would remain open during the construction, but the Grand MetroLink station would temporarily closed during demolition.

Patti Beck, Metro's external communications manager, said the transportation agency told riders to allow an extra 15-20 minutes for their commutes becase MetroBuses had to detour around the Grand station. Passengers were alerted of the reroutes by Metro officials stationed at some of the platforms.

"We do have personnel on the ground assisting customers. They're on the spot clearing up any confusion or questions," Beck said.

Demolition had progressed to the point that Metro was able to reopen the Grand station on April 11. Scott Avenue, which runs below the Grand Bridge, however, will be closed to bus traffic for eight weeks, according to Metro. Metro passengers can use the new bus turnout on Scott at Theresa Avenue and walk to and from the Grand MetroLink station.

Beck said passengers should still allow an additional 15-20 minutes for their commute.

Though the station is reopened, Metro will continue to monitor the construction work and ensure Metro riders will be safe.

"We are constantly monitoring the situation, and if there is any point in the future that the construction work would make it unsafe, we would close the station," Beck said.

Kozeny-Wagner, the construction firm leading the bridge project, said demolition work was specifically coordinated around the railroads. To reopen the MetroLink station, demolition needed to be completed to the north of Scott Ave. "Public safety was the number one concern in the reopening of the platform," according to Kozeny-Wagner. You can watch the progress of the project on a webcam at the Kozeny-Wagner website.

In addition to rerouting of Metro riders, about 30,000 motorists who traveled over the Grand Bridge every day were displaced onto detour routes.

Before the city could close the Grand Bridge, construction work on the Compton Bridge and Vandeventer Avenue had to be completed. The Compton Bridge was closed for reinforcement work and reopened March 1.

Some travelers, such as DeLassus, have complained of the poor surface quality of the Compton Bridge since its reopening. City Streets Director Todd Waelterman said initially travelers were not happy with the condition of the Compton Bridge, but the Streets Department recently did some grinding and smoothed the surface out a bit.

Along with Compton, the city recommended that motorists use Vandeventer and Jefferson avenues as alternate routes. According to Waelterman, using the Vandeventer and Compton detour routes adds three minutes of additional travel time, with Vandeventer picking up a bulk of the rerouted traffic.

Jefferson has not seen an increase in traffic since the closure of the Grand Bridge. "The Jefferson viaduct is actually one minute faster than prior to the closure of Grand," Waelterman said.

Members of the Streets Department adjusted traffic signals within the first two weeks after the closure, and Waelterman said traffic is making it through the timing sequences. "We're getting very minimal complaints, if any," he said.

Virginia Benson, a downtown resident, said one of the joys of living downtown is the ability to just go one block over to avoid construction sites, including the Grand Bridge. "We just go around it because it's so easy," she said.

Traffic is expected to divert back to normal routes when the new bridge opens. Though the new bridge will have four lanes instead of the previous six, it will be wider and feature a landscaped median, turnout lanes for MetroBus, wider pedestrian sidewalks and dedicated bicycle lanes.

The MetroLink platform below the bridge is also getting a makeover. The transit plaza will include seating, vending, improved lighting and new elevator and stair towers. A new park-and-ride lot will also be built on Scott Avenue.

A month into the project, roughly 3,500 man-hours have been put in by construction workers. Kozeny-Wagner is working on relocating a 30-inch waterline and is preparing to begin the drilled shafts that will be the supports for the main bridge section.

"The project is running in the original schedule," Lisa Huber, director of marketing and business development for Kozeny-Wagner, said.

Though some travelers have been more directly affected by the bridge closure than others, the consensus seems to be that the city and Metro did a good job of informing travelers of the closure.

"The alerts (Metro) gave out were plenty far in advance," Molly Gair, a nineVoices community producer and student at Washington University in St. Louis, said. "Maybe they could have had a hotline for a little bit with help, but I was happy just using the online planning tools."

Gair, who previously took MetroLink from Skinker to Grand, now rides the #97 MetroBus to Grand. Though her detour added time to her commute, riding the bus gave her a different perspective on the city.

"It's been a learning experience," she said.

MacRobie also enjoys her new route and may keep it after the new bridge opens.

"When the bridge reopens I intend to experiment and try (each route) both ways," she said. "I actually have not been inconvenienced (by the closure) at all."

Erika Miller, a senior at Saint Louis University, is a Beacon intern.

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