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Second phase of Highway 40 closing worries planners

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When crews closed part of Highway 40 (Interstate 64) in January, MoDOT and much of St. Louis held their collective breath waiting to see whether the predicted gridlock would indeed occur.

Thanks to good planning and the public's willingness to take MoDOT's advice to stay home, take Metro, travel early or late and find alternative routes, life — or at least vehicular traffic — went on.

Well, Highway 40 users, time to inhale and hold again!

With the re-opening of the western section of the project next week (two weeks early) comes the closing of the eastern portion.

And while MoDOT is hoping for the same relatively smooth going, it's going to, well, hold its breath.

"It's going to be a different animal - the second half," said Dan Galvin, public information manager for Gateway Constructors, the project's contractor.

Party time

Almost all motorists who use Highway 40 (I-64) will tell you the completion of the western half of reconstruction of the interstate is definitely a cause for celebration.

And MoDOT isn't letting them down.

The department of transportation has announced a celebration from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 14 to mark the reopening of the highway from I-170 to Ballas Road.

"Pedestrians and anything non-motorized" will be able to use the the eastbound lanes of the highway from Ballas to Brentwood.

What's going on:

Ribbon cutting, 12:30 p.m.: At the Lindbergh interchange with the official celebration for the re-opening of the western half of the project at 2:30 p.m. on the eastbound lanes "close to Brentwood Boulevard," Wilson said.

Horse drawn carriage rides: at the Lindbergh interchange, courtesy of the Frontenac/Town & County Chamber of Commerce.

5K run, 9 a.m: At Ballas Road. The run will be n the westbound lanes. Pre-registration is required. Call 314-781-3926 or go to www.stlouistrackclub.com

Fun Bike Ride, Noon to 2:30 p.m.: On the westbound lanes at at Ballas or McKnight roads. The sponsor, St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation, requires pre-registration. Call 314-707-5001 or go to www.stlbikefed.org.

Cycling Time Trial, Noon to 2:30 p.m.: Also in the westbound lanes of I-64 at Ballas Road. Registration required to Big Shark Bicycle Co. Call 314-862-1188 or go to www.bigshark.com.

Access to the party will be from any interchange between Ballas and Brentwood. Those using Metro's 800-car parking garage on Eager Road can take a free shuttle to the on ramp at Brentwood, MoDOT's Linda Wilson said. "Then you'll walk onto the highway," she added.

Celebrants can also park at the Frontenac Hilton and Le Chateau parking lots at Clayton and Lindbergh.

The I-64 re-opening celebration will take place rain, shine or light snow, Wilson said. The only exception would be "some horrible ice storm or blizzard" that would make it unsafe to be on the road, she added.

Vehicles won't get to use the new road until sometime in the early morning hours of Dec. 15, Wilson said. Late Sunday afternoon (Dec. 14) crews will take up the stripes that directed motorists away from phase one construction and "paint down" new ones, she said. They will also restripe the road at Kingshighway to keep motorists from entering phase two construction area.

The process could take up to 12 hours "but MoDOT's promise is to have the new section open by 5 a.m. for morning rush hour traffic," Wilson said.

"There's really no telling" how things will go when crews close the highway from I-170 to Kingshighway, he said. That will happen early Dec. 15 when the section from I-170 to Ballas Road re-opens.

"Actually our concern is it's going to be more difficult simply because the alternative routes aren't as good as they are on the western half of the project. They're more narrow, more congested and there are more stop signs and more traffic signals."

Gridlock was avoided in phase one because the public was "inundated" with information and knew what was going to happen, Galvin said.

But because the first half went so well, people aren't paying as close attention to information about the second half, he said.

"Our concern is that the things they feared would happen on the first half will happen on the second half because (people) aren't adapting their schedules. That's what has us a bit worried," he added.

So it's "second verse, same as the first."

Motorists now using I-70 or I-44 to go from West County to downtown or Illinois and vice versa should to continue to do so, Galvin said.

"Just stay there," he said. "If it's working for you, stick with that."

Overloaded Parkway

And for those thinking they'll hop over to Forest Park Parkway during rush hour, MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson has a message: "Think about other routes."

Both Galvin and Wilson said the Parkway could be overwhelmed if too many people use it.

"I've just had countless people tell me, 'Ohhhh I'm just going to take the Parkway,' and I'm like, 'Oh gosh, you and everybody else'," Wilson said.

Just as Clayton and Ladue roads have been congested during the western closure because they're closest to the highway, "Clayton Road east of 170 and Forest Park Parkway are going to be very heavily congested," she said.

"I've been cautioning people to not use those unless you absolutely have to be there. If your job or home or school is there, there's no question you have to use those but if you're trying to get from West County to downtown or vice versa, you should be taking the interstates and going around and not trying to zigzag through the middle."

The Parkway is only two lanes in each direction, Wilson said. "The county and the city are working on signal timing to make that the best as it can be but if a tremendous amount of people try to drive it between 7 and 8 in the morning, it just won't work," she said.

Interstates 44 and 70 have the capacity to carry the extra traffic, Galvin said. "It doesn't make sense to use I-64 to get to (Interstate) 170 to go up to Forest Park Parkway and to slowly work your way across town if you're going to downtown."

Rush Hour

Traditional peak drive time is confined to one hour in each direction -- 7-8 a.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m., Wilson said.

"We found that when we closed the west half, people spread out and morning rush was lasting almost three hours and evening rush was lasting almost three hours. But by February everybody had squished themselves back down to an hour, and we stayed that way the rest of the year."

Wilson worries the Parkway could follow the fate of Clayton and Ladue roads over the last year. "Basically those roads were busy from 7 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night," she said. "They were pretty much busy all day long with the peak hours being extremely busy, and I would envision that's what's going to happen to Forest Park Parkway."

MoDOT is urging motorists to use Manchester, Clayton, Delmar, Olive and Page as alternatives as well as I-44 and I-70.

"We're very concerned that we're going to have major traffic problems if people don't spread themselves out. Our roads can only handle so much," Wilson said. "Part of the equation is the roads are ready but part of it also is the choices people make. If they can adjust their hours even 15 minutes sometimes it can make a big difference."


MoDOT is also urging motorists to take MetroLink.

"MetroLink is going to be a great option for the east half closure because it runs right through the heart of our project," Wilson said. "You can get on at Shrewsbury. There are two stops in downtown Clayton, a stop at Wash U, a stop at BJC and all the way downtown. MetroLink can serve a lot more with this closure than it could for last year."

However, Metro has announced it will reduce bus and train service following defeat of Proposition M in November. Although the Metro officials haven't acted yet, early reports say MetroLink will operate at a reduced schedule starting in April with trains running every 15 instead of 10 minutes during rush hour and every 20 instead of 15 minutes during non-rush hour times.

"But MetroLink can help people at the start of the year and hopefully that will help," Wilson said. "We certainly want people to use MetroLink as long as it's a good option."

Kathie Sutin is a freelance journalist.

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