During her daily commute from Collinsville to downtown St. Louis , Rhiannon DiPalma, a 26-year-old legal assistant, takes Interstate 55 south to the Martin Luther King Bridge.
However, as soon as August, DiPalma's route will change, as she adjusts to taking the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge onto Tucker Boulevard to get downtown.
The Illinois Department of Transportation plans to close the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge for about a year as it replaces a truss bridge east of the MLK Bridge.
It will be the second time in recent years that there will be an extended closure of the MLK Bridge. It was shut down for six months in 2015 when IDOT resurfaced and painted the bridge.
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DiPalma expects the closure and corresponding traffic to cause headaches.
"I’ve noticed for the past few months or so, there’s actually been more traffic on the MLK Bridge," DiPalma said. "Nothing really crazy. It’s never stand-still traffic, which is nice, but I’ve definitely noticed more cars on the way to work and on my way home from work. So now they’re going to be stuck jamming Poplar Street Bridge, which is already insane, or going to take the Stan Musial, which obviously is going to be more clustered as well. So I’m definitely not looking forward to it, especially since it’s supposed to be closed for a year.”
Replacement of the truss bridge, which leads to the MLK Bridge over the Mississippi River, is expected to begin in August, and last a year.
But why didn't the estimated $32 million truss bridge replacement take place at the same time as the previous MLK Bridge work?
“It wasn’t ready to be done at the time. Plans were still being worked on. This is an entirely separate project,” said Kirk Brown, IDOT program development engineer for District 8, based in Collinsville. “It’s an entirely separated and isolated structure. The funding wasn’t there at the time. We try to plan our projects, and of course you could only do what the funding is available for."
DiPalma said construction work is getting to be a constant on Mississippi River bridges.
“It seems like they’re always doing road construction on all the bridges, except for the Stan Musial, since it’s newer, but that’s still out of the way. It seems like it’s always something."
The truss bridge replacement has been on IDOT's multi-year plan for six years, according to state documents.
IDOT's Brown said design, environmental evaluations, traffic coordination as well as coordination with Missouri also take several years to complete.
When the MLK Bridge was closed for resurfacing and painting, IDOT had another nearby, but separate, project taking place. IDOT was able to construct the the MLK connector, an exit ramp that connected eastbound MLK Bridge traffic to Illinois 3 toward Sauget.
“We’re always constrained by the construction dollars available ... We’ve done a very good job of trying to coordinate like projects, and group things that can be done at the same time," Brown said. "But in this case, this was $32 million in funding that just wasn’t available back then."
Recent interstate closures have taken place during weekends, and multiple projects that were independently awarded were coordinated to make sure that work was done simultaneously to reduce impact on traffic, Brown said.
“That is something we look at and are trying to do a better job of — identifying when those opportunities are there,” Brown said.
Even though the project involves replacing the truss bridge, two parallel structures adjacent to the truss bridge also will be closed, Brown said.
Those adjacent structures may be used for contractors’ access during the project, and closing them helps ensure public safety, Brown said.
“If it could have been proactively kept open, we would have entertained that,” Brown said.
IDOT also held off on this project as the Poplar Street Bridge work took place.
MoDOT plans to have one westbound lane and one eastbound lane closed on the Poplar Street Bridge through the end of the year.
"We intentionally held this project off until they were at this stage of the PSB," Brown said. "We expect lesser impact and more lanes to be available on the Poplar Street in the near future to lessen the impact of this bridge.”
IDOT plans to encourage drivers to use the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge and the Poplar Street Bridge as alternate routes to the MLK Bridge.
There is another way commuters can navigate over the river without driving. Bi-State Development, which oversees MetroLink and MetroBus, said it will work with St. Clair County Transit District to promote the public transit system as an alternative.
"MetroLink is a convenient option for commuters who travel over the Mississippi River daily between Illinois and Missouri," Bi-State Development spokeswoman Patti Beck said in an email. "It will be a great option for motorists who want to avoid traffic backups, road construction and lane closures, not only on the Poplar Street Bridge but on the other Mississippi River bridges, during the planned closure later this year of the Martin Luther King Bridge for the IDOT project."