Westbound lanes on the Jefferson Barracks Bridge will stay closed the rest of the week — and maybe longer — as inspectors determine the extent of emergency repairs needed after the discovery Sunday of cracking in steel beams.
The shutdown snarled traffic during the Monday morning rush as many Metro East-based commuters headed north to the Poplar Street Bridge, the closest alternate Mississippi River crossing to Missouri.
Another chokepoint was along parts of an 11-mile stretch of Illinois Route 3 between Interstate 255 and the Poplar Street Bridge area in East St. Louis.
“It was like a parking lot; it was horrible,” Debbie Duncan, Cahokia’s deputy village clerk, said of Route 3.
Mayor Jerry Wilson of Dupo said the stretch of Route 3 in his community on Monday morning had about three times the normal amount of traffic.
He added that his wife usually has a commute of 20 to 30 minutes via the Jefferson Barracks Bridge to her job at Washington University School of Medicine in the Central West End. On Monday, he said, “it was 3 hours, 5 minutes” using the Poplar.
Even people who planned ahead were caught up in delays Monday.
Ronda Sauget, executive director and CEO of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, said a relative of hers from Columbia, Ill., left early for a scheduled outpatient procedure at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in the CWE but still got there an hour and a half late.
Transportation officials recommend that drivers also consider using other routes, such as the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, north of downtown St. Louis, which they said had a slight increase in traffic Monday morning.
They also noted that the Chain of Rocks Bridge, much further to the north, had no change in traffic.
The cracking on the westbound Jefferson Barracks Bridge span, which carries I-255 from Monroe County to south St. Louis County, was discovered Sunday afternoon during a routine MoDOT inspection.
Tom Blair, the agency’s St. Louis area district engineer, said the main concern is a 6-foot-long crack in the weld connecting the bridge’s arch to a steel beam below the driving surface.
“That juncture is very critical from a structural stability point of view,” Blair said. He also said it is very unusual for the type of bridge involved.
He said that after the discovery, MoDOT called in a dozen or so specialized inspectors to scrutinize the entire westbound span to see whether there were any additional cracks.
The Illinois Department of Transportation and private consultants also are involved. They will be joined by additional inspectors Tuesday. Special equipment was brought in from Chicago and MoDOT headquarters in Jefferson City.
Blair said a recent inspection of the bridge’s companion eastbound span, where traffic continues to flow, turned up no similar problems. But, he said, it will now be reinspected.
“At this point, the inspection is anticipated to be complete Wednesday, at which point the department will be able to share further information on a timeline for the needed repairs,” MoDOT said in a statement Monday afternoon.
Blair said that although inspectors can do their checking only in daylight, he expects that repair crews will be assigned to “work day and night until we can reopen this bridge.”
“We do not take closing lanes or entire interstates lightly,” he said. He said MoDOT and IDOT realize that such highways are vital to people’s livelihoods.
Sauget, the Leadership Council official, said the closure will have a significant impact whatever its duration and that people commuting to jobs aren’t the only ones affected.
“We sit in a major freight hub here,” she said, referring to cross-country trucking.
Blair said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a lane or lanes on the eastbound span could be temporarily converted to westbound use.
But he said he hopes that the eventual repair plan will be quick enough so lane conversion wouldn’t be needed.
MoDOT spokesman Andrew Gates said about 60,000 vehicles typically use the bridge each day, with about half driving westward.
The westbound portion of the bridge opened to traffic in 1984 and the eastbound span in 1990.
MoDOT officials said the bridge, like others in its system, are routinely inspected every two years or so. They said the next major rehab of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge was planned for 2022.
Editor's note: The Missouri Department of Transportation said Wednesday the Jefferson Barracks Bridge carries about 60,000 vehicles each day — 30,000 westbound and about 30,000 eastbound. This story was corrected to reflect that information.