Traffic backed up on Interstate 64
Brian Donovan, who lives on the north side of Columbia, sat in traffic for an hour and 45 minutes Monday as he tried to get to his job at Nestlé Purina in St. Louis.
His normal commute north on Illinois 3 and across the Poplar Street Bridge usually takes him only about 20 minutes.
Tuesday, he tried a different route north on Interstate 255 to westbound Interstate 64. That took him an hour and 20 minutes.
“I have to try to plan my morning around that,” he said. “I would rather drive for 30 extra miles than be stuck in traffic like that.”
Donovan and his coworkers have been looking for alternative routes or working at home. In the meantime, he just wants to have his normal commute back.
The westbound lanes crossing the Jefferson Barracks Bridge were closed after crews found 6-foot “critical” cracks in the structure of the bridge during a scheduled inspection Sunday. The cracks were found on parts of the steel beams that connect the arches holding the bridge above the Mississippi River.
The damage necessitated closure of the westbound “twin” bridge from Monroe County into South St. Louis County. Coupled with the August closure of the MLK Bridge, Illinois commuters like Donovan have been detoured either to the Poplar Street Bridge or the Stan Musial-Veterans Memorial Bridge.
The Missouri Department of Transportation reported a “large increase” in the number of vehicles on westbound I-64 across the Poplar Street Bridge and a “slight” increase in traffic on the Stan Musial-Veterans Memorial Bridge this week.
Illinois Department of Transportation records show that about 66,500 vehicles use the JB Bridge complex each day and 94,700 use the Poplar Street Bridge complex each day.
Wednesday morning, detoured westbound traffic converged at the I-55/I-70 merge in East St. Louis to create a parking lot to the I-255 exit — nearly 10 miles back, according to Google Maps.
Reopening time not set
An inspection of the JB Bridge was completed Wednesday, revealing additional cracks not as severe as those first discovered.
Officials from the Missouri and Illinois departments of transportation said Wednesday that repair work already is underway and that an emergency contract will be awarded to put additional resources on the job. They offered no estimates, however, on when the repairs would be completed and the bridge would be reopened.
“The nature of this crack has driven what we’ve been doing out there,” said St. Louis region bridge engineer Joe Molinaro at a Wednesday news conference about the bridge’s status. “Once you find something you slow things down to make sure you find everything.”
Additional cracks were found on both the westbound and eastbound bridges.
“The good news is none of those new cracks they’ve found is nearly as significant as the one they found on Sunday,” said Tom Blair, district engineer for Missouri Department of Transportation-St. Louis.
In the meantime, drivers are being asked to follow detour signs on I-55 and I-255 instead of using Illinois 3. The Illinois Department of Transportation said Tuesday that detour had an average travel time of roughly 53 minutes, while travelers trying to access the Poplar Street Bridge through Illinois 3 average more than two hours.
MoDot suggested shifting commute times, telecommuting or using the MetroLink as alternatives.
At 9 a.m. Wednesday, traffic on I-64 toward St. Louis was backed up to the I-255 exit. Wednesday’s commute was further complicated by several car accidents and a truck fire at 6:30 a.m. on westbound Interstate 270 near the Chain of Rocks Bridge.
Some commutes were more than two hours long.
Blair said the eastbound JB Bridge into Illinois could handle traffic in both directions, but would necessitate construction of cross-over lanes. MoDot would like to avoid that if possible, however, he said.
Inspection teams are still surveying the bridge during the day in an effort to determine if there are similar issues on other parts of the bridge. The inspection is nearing completion and extensive lab testing is scheduled for Thursday.
“We hope when we get the results back we can make some pretty quick repairs and get the bridge open,” Blair said.
Equipment from Chicago, Jefferson City, Mo., and a specialist from Seattle have been brought in to work on the inspection.
“Safety must be our primary concern,” Blair said. “We’re doing everything we can to expedite this progress. We’re working around the clock to reopen the bridge.”