The Martin Luther King Bridge will be closed for construction for a year, starting Monday, and the level of unhappiness among motorists seems directly related to how much they use it.
Mechanic Terrance Bass, 50, of Madison, is a regular.
“I think it’s going to be a nightmare,” he said this week while getting gas at Pilot Travel Center at Interstate 55/70 and Illinois 203. “What are we going to do with all that traffic? They’re working on the Poplar Street Bridge. All we’ve got is the Eads Bridge, and it’s going to be congested. This is bananas.”
Pilot is one of the last pit stops before Illinois drivers cross the Mississippi River into downtown St. Louis.
Another customer, Tamara Brock, isn’t worried about the closure. She’s a truck driver who avoids the MLK. She prefers the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.
“I don’t like (the MLK),” said Brock, 47, who lives in Biloxi, Mississippi, but works out of a Madison terminal. “It’s too small to go across. It’s narrow, and there’s lots of barriers on it.”
The MLK closure will change the daily routine of Mike Murphy, 70, of Caseyville, a mechanic for Murphy Truck Repair at Ninth and Lake streets in East St. Louis.
“I’m not too happy about it,” he said. “That’s my Plan B bridge when the Poplar Street Bridge is jammed up. I go on a lot of service calls to St. Louis, and when I leave our shop, I can see what the traffic is like, and I can decide right then which way I’m going to go.”
The Illinois state budget for 2018-19 allocated more than $36 million to demolish an old truss bridge on the ramp leading to the MLK. The ramp goes over the newly relocated Illinois 3, various railroads, Missouri Avenue, southbound Interstate 55 and westbound Interstate 64.
The truss bridge is “past its life span,” according to an Illinois Department of Transportation press release. Workers will replace it with a steel beam-and-girder bridge.
“The project will also include reconstruction of Missouri Avenue, removal and replacement of a retaining wall along (55 and 64), earthwork, resurfacing, guardrail, lighting, storm sewer and maintenance repairs to seven additional bridges within the project limits,” the release states.
This summer, IDOT awarded the contract to Milestone Weber, a construction company based in St. Charles, Missouri. Its low bid of $24 million was $12 million less than the state’s cost estimate. The contract requires the project to be completed by Aug. 31, 2019.
“They are going to begin demolition immediately,” said Joel Cumby, an IDOT project manager for District 8 in Collinsville. “It is going to take several weeks to demolish (the truss bridge). It is in a deteriorated state, so they have to be very cautious about how they take it down.”
Illinois and Missouri co-own Mississippi River bridges in the St. Louis area, splitting costs for maintenance and repair. But each bridge has a lead agency that plans and administers projects. Illinois is lead agency for the MLK.
During the closure, IDOT officials are asking motorists to use one of six other vehicular bridges between St. Louis and the metro-east — Poplar Street, McKinley, Musial, Eads, Jefferson Barracks or Chain of Rocks — and consider public transportation or carpooling.
“Any time you take a major river crossing out of service, it’s going to have an affect on traffic,” Cumby said. “We hope that people will be aware of it and plan accordingly.”
IDOT has received some criticism for starting the MLK project this summer, knowing that the Missouri Department of Transportation is widening the Poplar Street Bridge and won’t be finished until the end of the year.
Cumby noted that the region will have the same number of westbound bridge lanes going into St. Louis and one more eastbound lane than it did five years ago, before the Musial opened.
“Come January, we will have an additional two lanes going east and west,” he said.
Pilot customer Steven Rorer, 32, of Madison, figures the MLK closure will add about 10 minutes to his daily commute. He’s a truck driver whose terminal is in Bridgeton, Missouri.
“It won’t affect me much,” Rorer said. “I can take the (Musial) bridge or go up to I-270. It will be a little inconvenient, but not too bad.”
Norman Frech, 58, of Granite City, uses the McKinley Bridge to get to his job with the U.S. Army in North St. Louis, but talk of the MLK project brings out his strong feelings about the area’s highway and bridge system. He thinks it’s flawed.
“A good modeling software program tells you the flow of traffic so you know how many lanes you need at the exchanges, and they’re not using one,” Frech said. “Either their programs are bad or their data is wrong. The traffic flow is terrible. It will make a good Christian man curse.”