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ST. LOUIS — The long-delayed double-bridge project on Interstate 44 near Shrewsbury that has plagued drivers for more than two years will fully re-open to traffic July 1, or the contractor will pay $11,300 a day until it does, officials said.

Andrew Gates, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said MODOT had announced in April that all lanes would re-open in mid-July, to account for any unexpected delays. But on Tuesday, he said the chances were “pretty high” that the final bridge would open by July 1.

Three of the normal four traffic lanes are currently open in the eastbound direction. The four westbound lanes have been reduced to just two, creating miles-long backups for westbound rush-hour drivers. An estimated 50,000 vehicles travel the road each way daily.

Tom Huster, president of KCI Construction, which built the bridge, said Tuesday that he recognized that the traveling public was “irritated beyond belief” with the delays. “We’re doing our best to get it open as soon as possible and give MODOT a quality product in the end,” he said.

The BNSF bridge re-opening is the good news. The bad news? That project is just one of a series along the interstate in St. Louis that won’t end until next spring. Between South Grand and South Kingshighway boulevards, Interstate 44 westbound was recently reduced to two lanes. Gates said that would last until December. Work on the Jefferson Avenue bridge will begin in spring and last until the fall of 2021, MODOT says.

“It’s reaching that point where everything is getting 50 years old,” Gates said, explaining the extensive roadwork on area interstates in recent years.

Work will continue on the BNSF bridge through Sept. 1, but Gates said that would not result in lane closures during peak hours.

The $16.6 million project, which began in March 2017 on the westbound bridge, was supposed to take at least 18 months.

The new bridge opened to traffic in December of 2017, but cracks in the concrete surface began appearing and grew worse through the spring and summer of 2018. The cracks were generally one-quarter to one-half of a millimeter wide, or smaller than the width of a credit card.

Officials said the main concern with cracks was that it would allow winter’s road salt to reach the middle of the bridge decks, significantly compromising the bridges’ expected 50-year life span.

In November, MODOT stopped work on the project and hired consulting firm HDR Inc. to determine the cause of the cracking.

The firm and its subcontractor, KPFF Consulting Engineers, reviewed the bridge design, drilled out and analyzed concrete cores, scanned the bridge using ground-penetrating radar and mapped the cracks before they recommended a fix.

Design flaw

The design of both bridges was complicated because both do not cross the BNSF railroad tracks at right angles. Instead, they are skewed and are wider than they are long, officials told the Post-Dispatch.

There were two basic problems with the design, the HDR report found. One end of the bridge was too rigid and didn’t allow the bridge to flex and move as traffic loads changed and the bridge expanded in hot weather and contracted in cold.

The second problem, linked to the first, was insufficient reinforcement in the bridge structure that could have resisted the cracking.

KCI subcontracted out the design, the report says. But as part of a settlement with MODOT, KCI agreed to pay $200,000 for the cost of the HDR review and $319,000 in “delay costs.” The settlement change order says that because of the design error, KCI would also be responsible for “all the costs of redesign and remediation work of both bridges.”

Huster said he didn’t know what the final costs would be. Asked whether the design firms would bear those costs instead of KCI, Huster said the company is “working that out.”

Both bridges had to be jacked up so that the ends could be essentially remade, said Randy Hitt, a MODOT engineer.

The structural problems were spotted early enough to fix the eastbound bridge more easily, because the concrete had not been poured.

Last year, MODOT estimated driver delays for the Shrewsbury project alone were up to 13 minutes, depending on time of day. That’s up to 13 minutes extra for thousands of drivers for one road project. One afternoon in May, Google Maps estimated that construction on the stretch of Interstate 44 between downtown St. Louis and the Shrewsbury exit added 21 minutes to a one-way westbound trip during rush hour.

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Robert Patrick is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.