The new Mississippi bridge: Will it change your commute?

News-DemocratFebruary 5, 2014 

When the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge opens to Interstate 70 traffic Sunday, local residents will have another way to get around.

But that doesn't mean that all of the traffic headaches metro-east commuters face when trying to get to St. Louis and back will be magically solved.

While the $695 million bridge will shoulder some of the traffic burden for the area's over-used existing river spans, its opening will also kick off a new phase of overdue construction on a main way to get across the Mississippi River, the Poplar Street Bridge.

The changes include:

Replacing the I-70 ramp for eastbound traffic on the Poplar Street Bridge with a dedicated second lane for the Interstate 44-55 ramp. The Missouri Department of Transportation did not list a specific date for the work to start. But, according to its list of upcoming jobs, the work is supposed to start in the spring after the completion of the new bridge

Randy Hitt, manager for the new bridge project for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said elimination of the Interstate 70 off ramp from the Poplar Street Bridge will allow an additional lane to be made for the I-44 and I-55 ramp. For decades, drivers who wanted to get on either I-44 or I-55 have had to merge together and then split at the bottom of the ramp.

"Geometry prevents the situation from being perfect because the curve is too sharp for a high speed ramp," Hitt said. "But the situation will be a lot better than it was because the merging caused a lot of backups."

Westbound, the elimination of Interstate 70 traffic will allow dedicated lanes to be established to lessen the amount of merging taking place on the Poplar Street Bridge. The lane previously occupied by the eastbound I-70 on ramp will be turned into an additional traffic lane on the Poplar Street Bridge.

"It's going to make it a lot safer," Hitt said.

Click arrows for an interactive graphic

When the Stan Musial Veterans Bridge was originally planned, MoDot leaders hoped that the asphalt on the Poplar Street Bridge would hold out until the new bridge was completed. But it didn't work out that way, Hitt said. A temporary asphalt overlay was installed last summer when the road surface eroded to the point that the steel plates beneath the road surface were exposed.

Hitt said workers now hope that temporary fix will last the two years it is expected to take to reconfigure the Poplar Street Bridge lanes and ramps. Then when those jobs are completed the bridge deck will again, and more permanently, be resurfaced.

The real benefit from the new span will be realized in the summer of 2016 when the Poplar Street Bridge is done and traffic begins to finally flow the way it was intended to go.

"We're anticipating about 40,000 vehicles a day on the new bridge," Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff church, who managed the Illinois portion of the new bridge project, said. "That's going to take about 30,000 off the Poplar Street Bridge which currently handles about 120,000 cars a day and about, 10,000 to come off the Martin Luther King Bridge."

Church said the relief will improve traffic flow. But it's impossible to say how much time it would save the average commuter because of variables like the time of day the person is traveling, where they're trying to go and if there is construction going on.

"Things are still going to be backed up on the Poplar Street Bridge in the morning with people trying to get from the metro-east downtown," Church said. "The advantage is going to come if you're trying to get across the river to go someplace away from downtown like the airport early in the morning. Then you'll avoid the congestion and it might save you quite a bit of time."

The average St. Louis Cardinals fan's commute to Busch Stadium will be improved by a less tangible amount, Church said. There will still be a lot of traffic going to one place at the same time. But the I-70 traffic won't be in the way and the I-44-55 traffic will be less of an obstacle.

"I don't know if you can put a number on it," Church said. "But it will make the drive better -- and possibly faster -- because there will be less traffic."

Hitt said one of the best features about the new bridge is its price tag. While $695 million sounds steep, it includes all costs from the initial studies, utility relocation, land acquisitions, archeological work to the construction of the connecting highways as well as the bridge itself. And it is about $15 million below the original budget of $710 million in place in February 2010 when ground was broken for the project.

When the idea for a new bridge was first explored 20 years ago, officials originally conceived an eight-lane bridge that would handle a lot more traffic. But that would have cost about $2 billion.

"That's billion with a b," Hitt said. "Neither state could afford that. So they had to forget about what they wanted and get together on what they really need. We're pretty proud of the fact that we were able to get done on time and under budget."

Click below to navigate the new bridge

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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