MoDOT: First commute on shared Blanchette Bridge a smooth one

2012-11-05T12:00:00Z 2012-11-08T16:24:26Z MoDOT: First commute on shared Blanchette Bridge a smooth oneBy Ken Leiser kleiser@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8215 and Mark Schlinkmann mschlinkmann@post-dispatch.com 636-255-7233 stltoday.com

UPDATED at 4:40 p.m. Monday with an update on traffic from early evening rush hour

CHESTERFIELD   •   Eastbound commuters passed their first rush-hour test with fewer lanes on the Blanchette Bridge carrying Interstate 70 over the Missouri River.

"Even with a little bit of rain, everything went really smoothly," said Ed Hassinger, St. Louis district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. "People did what we asked them to do and basically moved. We saw increases in traffic on 370 and 364 and a significant decrease on I-70. And that's exactly what we wanted people to do."

The heaviest increase in traffic volume was seen this morning on the Page Avenue extension (Route 364), where eastbound traffic was more than triple the normal morning peak-hour flow - today from 6:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. - with 7,148 vehicles over the Missouri River.

"We did have a fairly significant increase on Page Avenue," Hassinger said. "We've got a lot of capacity on Page Avenue. That's a good thing. We've got 10 lanes of traffic out there that usually is not near-capacity."

Meantime, eastbound traffic volume on the I-70 bridge dropped by about 20 percent of normal for the peak morning hour, to 4,196 vehicles between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Overall, the bridge carries about 160,000 cars a day in both directions. 

The peak traffic period also moved a little bit, meaning people changed what time they left home for work.

As of 4:30 p.m., the evening rush hour was off to a smooth start. Westbound traffic was flowing steadily and at the speed limit over the bridge.

Hassinger cautioned drivers against getting too comfortable with the early success. MoDOT plans to give daily updates this week after each morning and evening commute.

In the morning, he said there were some traffic hotspots, including backups off Page Avenue  at the ramps to Highway 141 and Interstate 270. There were crashes during the drizzly conditions, but none was major.

Missouri Highway Patrol officials cautioned drivers to slow down through the I-70 work zone at the Missouri River. Hassinger said crews began work immediately on Sunday and Monday on the now-closed westbound span.

Hassinger said traffic flowed pretty normally for a Monday morning. He added that tonight's commute will give MoDOT another chance to size up the traffic volumes on I-70 and the alternate routes.

"Traditionally, evening commutes don't spread out as much," Hassinger said. "People want to go at the time they want to go. So we're expecting probably maybe a little more traffic all at once."

UPDATED at 7:55 a.m. Monday with latest from MoDOT officials.

ST. CHARLES • Drivers using Interstate 70 between St. Charles and St. Louis counties have been squeezed into a shared bridge over the Missouri River so the state and its contractor can rehabilitate the westbound Blanchette Bridge span.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is going to replace about three-quarters of the westbound bridge at a cost of roughly $63 million. The work is expected to take a year.

The shift of traffic and closure of the westbound bridge was completed Sunday afternoon. At the start of rush hour traffic Monday morning, there were no major traffic tie-ups.

"Things are going okay," Tom Evers, area engineer for Missouri Department of Transportation for St. Charles County, said shortly after 7 a.m. Monday. "So far, it's moving okay."

Normally the height of morning rush is 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. As traffic approached the bridge from the west during that time Monday morning, it started to slow down a bit. Vehicles were going about 40 mph over the bridge, but they were moving.

Commuters appear to be following the advice of MoDOT officials by picking alternate routes.

"We're seeing increased traffic on 370 and Page, which is good that there's people spreading out to other routes," Evers said.

Linda Wilson Horn, a MoDOT spokeswoman, said Monday that she has been watching traffic cameras since 5:30 a.m. and said she's seen heavy congestion on the Page and 370 routes. It's heavier than normal, she said, although a traffic count comparison won't be available until later Monday morning.

MoDOT officials have been urging commuters to find a way around the shared river crossing to avoid significant delays eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon and evening commute periods.

Chief among those alternate crossings between St. Louis County and St. Charles County are Highway 370 to the north and Highway 364 (Page Avenue) to the south. Missouri officials have also asked drivers to alter their work hours if possible.

Drivers who stick with I-70 will have three narrow lanes in each direction — instead of the normal five — over the Missouri River. They will also face work zone speed limits of 45 to 50 mph.

The Blanchette Bridge complex carries nearly 160,000 cars a day in both directions combined. In addition to serving as a major commuter route between St. Charles and St. Louis counties, I-70 is a heavily used freight route across the midsection of the United States. 

Commuters along I-70 on Monday morning included Jennifer Shoemake, 27, of St. Charles. She is a student at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She stopped at a Quik Trip before crossing the Blanchette Bridge and could see the traffic ahead of her.

"It's not too bad. I'm worried about coming home" later in the day, she said. "I think they've done a pretty good job of keeping it from backing up."

Amber Harrison, 32, of Granite City, crossed the bridge westbound Monday morning to drop off her fiance at work in St. Charles. She was preparing to head back east, over the Blanchette again, when she offered this perspective: "It wasn't too bad."

Dave Grebing, 49, of St. Charles County, didn't need to cross a bridge Monday morning, but his commute did take him along the Page extension in St. Charles County, and he noticed heavier-than-usual traffic there. He said the Blanchette Bridge looked better than Page.

"It was jammed up," he said of the Page extension. "I would never have thought that."

The Blanchette Bridge changes come just before the annual Christmas Traditions celebration in St. Charles, which runs from Nov. 23 to Dec. 24 this year. Some shop owners who rely on the celebration for critical holiday shopping business have expressed concerns.

But St. Charles officials have taken steps to promote shops downtown and to publicize alternate routes.

During the nearly one-year closure of the westbound span, Missouri will dispatch a Motorist Assist truck to respond to problems on the combined span. And MoDOT will hire a contractor to clear larger traffic obstructions in the work zone.

At times during the next several weeks, MoDOT and its contractor will shut down traffic in both directions for an hour at a time to remove sections of the westbound span over the river with explosives.

Ken Leiser is the transportation writer at the Post-Dispatch. Read his Along for the Ride column every Sunday in the Post-Dispatch or on STLToday.

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