Commuters in the St. Louis region were complaining this week about simultaneous construction on two main bridges across the Mississippi River that caused hours-long delays, while transportation officials urged drivers to seek alternate routes.
“(It’s) incredibly bad timing,” said commuter Jenn McNease of Shiloh.
The Illinois Department of Transportation closed the Martin Luther King Bridge in August and it will remain closed for at least a year. That closure couldn’t wait, IDOT Supervising Field Engineer Joel Cumby said at a news conference Thursday.
“The approach structure carrying ramp traffic to and from the Martin Luther King (Bridge) was in a highly deteriorated state and needed to be completely removed and replaced,” Cumby said.
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Meantime, the Missouri Department of Transportation continues work on the Poplar Street Bridge, with an additional westbound lane closing this week, bringing the bridge down to just two lanes in that direction.
“We recognize that this is a huge inconvenience for everybody,” Cumby said. “IDOT and MoDOT have coordinated on this for several months up to a couple years on these projects. Unfortunately, they did need to overlap at this point.”
The additional lane closures caused gridlock as far as IL-111, roughly eight miles from Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis. The lane closures are expected to last through early October.
The departments suggested commuters take public transit or find an alternate route to work. The following bridges might take drivers a little out of their way, but they are open:
- Interstate 70 across the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge north of downtown St. Louis. Though traffic has been slow this week on Interstate 70, IDOT officials say this is the best alternative to reach downtown;
- The Eads Bridge into downtown St. Louis, though commuters reported bad traffic on this bridge during the morning commute this week;
- The McKinley Bridge north of the Stan Musial bridge;
- Interstate 270 across the Chain of Rocks Bridge;
- Interstate 255 across the Jefferson Barracks Bridge south of the city. There has been light traffic on Interstate 270 and 255 this week, though it’s out of the way for motorists looking to get downtown.
MoDot spokesman Andrew Gates said the Stan Musial Bridge tends to open up more quickly than the others, while the Chain of Rocks Bridge and the Jefferson Barracks Bridge are also good options to avoid traffic.
The worst traffic occurs between 6:45 and 8:45 a.m., according to Michelle Forneris, an engineer for MoDOT St. Louis. Drivers should try to travel outside of that time period if possible, she said.
MoDOT expects to finish major construction on the Poplar Street Bridge by the end of this year, Gates said, but travelers should expect more lane closures before then. There will be two more eastbound closures before the end of the year. Two right westbound lanes and the ramp from Illinois Route 3 will be closed in early October once the two left lanes reopen. Those westbound lanes will be closed for about three weeks.
This weekend, a full closure of westbound Interstate 55/64 at the interchange with Interstate 70 begins 8 p.m. Friday and ends 5 p.m. Sunday.
Frustration on Interstate 64
McNease, the commuter from Shiloh, said it took her nearly two hours to make her normally 45-minute drive on Monday. She commutes from her home near Scott Air Force Base to Chesterfield, Mo., a roughly 40-mile drive that usually takes her 45 minutes. She decided to work from home on Wednesday to avoid the traffic.
“I couldn’t handle the thought of being in traffic like that again today,” McNease said. “It’s like IDOT and MoDOT don’t know St. Louis is a commuter area.”
But Gates, the MoDOT spokesman, said the two departments coordinated “to minimize the overall impacts of work on these corridors.” MoDOT holds a weekly call to discuss major road construction and includes IDOT on those calls, Gates said.
“There are times, such as this, when the work that needs to be completed has to be done at the same time to avoid greater (or longer) impacts to the interstates system,” Gates wrote in an email to the BND. “Any time we close lanes on an interstate, we expect there to be delays. That is why we encouraged people to look at what options might be best for them besides coming through at rush period.”
Taking MetroLink instead
Metro, the region’s public transit authority, continued to urge residents to take MetroBus or MetroLink.
At least one regular commuter, Robin Ryan of O’Fallon, said she made the switch from driving to taking the light rail this week. She commutes to the Cortex district in St. Louis, normally a 40-minute drive.
“After the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday’s one hour and 40 minute commute ... I decided to take the Metro from Shiloh-Scott to the Cortex,” Ryan said. “I left the house at 6:35 (a.m.), boarded the train at 6:52 and arrived at the cortex at 7:42. Beats being late for work.”
Metro recently added a new MetroLink station at the Cortex. Ryan said she’ll likely continue to use MetroLink because she gets a discount through work and believes it could save “wear and tear” on her car.
Patti Beck, a spokeswoman for Metro, said it’s not clear if the traffic has caused more commuters to take MetroLink because there is a five-week lag on ridership numbers. Even then, special events like baseball games and concerts can influence those numbers.
Beck said Metro worked with IDOT and MoDOT to coordinate efforts to inform the public about the coming closures.
“If you’re sitting on the bridge even knowing there would be additional lane closures, it just makes sense to look at MetroLink,” Beck said. “You can take a chance in your car. It may get you there on time one day and the next day it may not. Metro will get you there on time.”
MetroLink riders can expect the train to be on-time 97 percent of the time, Beck said.
Kristi Edwards of Belleville said even terrible traffic won’t convince her to take MetroLink. She commutes with her 3-year-old daughter from Belleville near the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows to the St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
“I don’t trust MetroLink with my daughter. You never know what’s going to happen,” Edwards said.
On Monday, she left home early after seeing warnings from MoDOT thinking she could take her normal route on I-64.
“It took us an hour. I sat for 32 minutes and didn’t move a mile,” Edwards said.
Instead of taking MetroLink, she changed her route to go through downtown East St. Louis, cross the Eads Bridge and navigate through downtown back to I-64.
Regardless of their routes, travelers can check for construction updates at ArriveOnTime.org.
They can also use mobile applications like Waze to check their planned routes before they leave. Google Maps also has a traffic function to show where traffic is backed up.