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New Mississippi River bridge opens to traffic
BRIDGE

New Mississippi River bridge opens to traffic

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Updated 12:15 p.m.

A day after veterans and pedestrians ceremonially opened the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, the span fully opened to traffic shortly after noon today.

Updated 11:30 a.m.

A pickup truck operated by Kelvin Rodgers of Belleville was among the 12 vehicles waiting on the Cass Avenue side to be the first group to cross the bridge into Illinois.

Rodgers has a vested interest in the Stan Span: A laborer with Local 100, he helped build it.

The bridge design, he said, "beautifies the city."

Rodgers' job has already required him to drive across the bridge.

Sunday was however an opportunity to show his fiancé, Darncia Woods, his contribution to the regional infrastructure.

Being one of the first to cross, said Woods, "gives me bragging rights."

Update, 11 a.m.:

The westbound lanes of the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge from Illinois to Missouri opened to vehicles at 10:20 a.m. this morning. Missouri Department of Transportation officials expect the eastbound lanes to open by noon.

ST. LOUIS • By switching his commute to the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, Greg Eschman hopes to shave 15 minutes a day from his round trip between Swansea and north St. Louis.

Eschman, who now uses the Martin Luther King Bridge to get to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Goodfellow Boulevard, figures that daily savings will pile up, and translate into 60 hours a year he can do something other than driving.

“I’m not sure how I am going to spend all my free time,” he quipped when asked how the new Interstate 70 bridge — which opens Sunday — will affect his commute.

Transportation planners expect the four-lane bridge to siphon 40,000 cars and trucks each day off the other downtown Mississippi River crossings — once people become familiar with it. That would reduce Poplar Street Bridge traffic by 20 percent, and Martin Luther King Bridge traffic by half.

Removing the I-70 traffic load from the crowded Poplar Street Bridge — which still will carry Interstates 55 and 64 — was one of the driving influences behind the project.

It creates a new, three-mile I-70 path to connect the St. Louis side, about a half-mile north of downtown’s Edward Jones Dome downtown, to the I-55-64 interchange in East St. Louis.

Discussions about a new bridge date to 1991, and Missouri and Illinois spent years wrangling over what it should look like, where it should be and how to pay for it.

The $695 million project was dramatically scaled back from the original vision of an eight-lane signature bridge, held up by twin 500-foot towers. Along with the related highway projects, the cost would have broken the bank, at up to $2 billion.

The original design, for instance, included rebuilding approaches to the Poplar Street Bridge and relocating Illinois Route 3.

Design of the cable-stayed bridge was whittled down to four lanes, two in each direction, with room to restripe it for six lanes.

Even at that, the support towers still rise 400 feet from their pedestals, nearly 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. And the structure ranks as the nation’s third-longest cable-stayed bridge, with a main span of 1,500 feet.

By contrast, the cable-stayed Clark Bridge, completed in 1994 across the river at Alton, has 250-foot towers and a 756-foot main span.

CHALLENGES OVERCOME

Missouri transportation officials proposed paying for the new I-70 crossing with bridge tolls, but that effort fizzled. The two states reached agreement in February 2008 on a plan that called for a mix of federal and state funds. Illinois wound up paying substantially more than Missouri, but also has much longer and more complicated bridge approaches.

Figuring out how to pay for it was not the only complication. During the spring and summer of 2010, high water on the Mississippi River cost the contractor 81 days of work. The bridge-building joint venture of Massman Construction Co., of Kansas City, Traylor Bros. Inc., of Indiana, and Alberici Constructors, of St. Louis, added shifts and extended the work week to make up time.

Click the image below to view a full-screen, hi-resolution map of each and every new route created by the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Discovery of an ancient settlement along the project’s path turned part of the Metro East construction zone into one of the nation’s largest archaeological digs from 2009 to 2012. Buried artifacts discovered beneath the old St. Louis National Stockyards site had to be photographed, mapped and removed before construction could proceed.

“It was a very, very well-orchestrated set of events,” said Brad Koldehoff, chief archaeologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation. “We had to clear each area before construction could happen.”

Randy Hitt, the project director for the bridge, said complications like high water and archaeological discoveries were anticipated and assigned risk factors for delays. “That way, it gives us a priority,” he explained. “Here are the things we have to focus on. Every week we would go over that list.”

Construction took a sad turn when Andy Gammon, 35, a carpenter from Park Hills, Mo., was killed March 28, 2012, inside a piece of equipment that fell from a barge into the river. He was the project’s only fatality.

What to call the bridge proved challenging. Missouri lawmakers wanted to name it for Stan Musial, the late St. Louis Cardinals baseball great. Illinois wanted to make it the Veterans Memorial Bridge, in honor of those who served in the armed services. The final name reflects a compromise.

FASTER, EASIER CROSSING

The new bridge is expected to benefit cross-country travelers, who want to avoid the heart of downtown St. Louis, and commuters, who face regular rush-hour delays on the Poplar Street and Martin Luther King bridges.

Marjorie Williams, of St. John, drives to Belleville every day and plans to take the new I-70 connection.

Even though she drives opposite the typically heavier commuter flow — which she said appears “terrible” at times — Williams said she still runs into some traffic problems near the Martin Luther King Bridge. The trip takes her about 30 minutes, barring accident delays.

Williams is the executive director of MindsEye, a reading service for the blind, based at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows at the edge of Belleville. She has been making the drive for eight to nine years.

“The big thing is I am hoping it will shave about five minutes off, that is my biggest goal,” Williams said. “The MLK has gotten better since it has gotten down to three lanes (one westbound, two eastbound), but it still makes me nervous, especially driving the single lane. I am always afraid someone is going to get stuck in that single lane.”

Common questions and answers about the new I-70 Bridge project:

That section of highway that was previously Interstate 70 leading to the Poplar Street Bridge and Interstate 55 to the Interstate 44 junction will now simply be Interstate 44. The switch will occur when the new bridge opens.

No. You should still use the Poplar Street Bridge. Take eastbound Interstate 70 to newly designated I-44 just south of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. Take I-44 to the Poplar Street Bridge to get to Route 3 and Sauget.

No. Sometime next year, the Missouri Department of Transportation will remove the ramp from I-44 to the Poplar Street Bridge. At that point, you should take the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge to Illinois, exit at relocated Illinois Route 3, then follow Route 3 to the ramp to westbound Interstate 55/64. Go a mile and exit at southbound Route 3. That will be supplanted as the best route when a new connection is built from the Martin Luther King Bridge to Route 3. But that is still more than 1 ½ years away.

They should. MoDOT engineers say TomTom representatives already have mapped out the new bridge and interchanges. If you pull up a Garmin map, the new I-70 bridge is already reflected. The timing of when the changes are reflected on GPS may vary.

It should mean less traffic. Transportation officials expect the new bridge to siphon off roughly 20 percent of the Poplar Street Bridge traffic, which is now about 120,000 vehicles a day. It should divert about half of the traffic now using the Martin Luther King bridge. Eventually, the new bridge is expected to carry about 40,000 cars a day.

St. Louis Streets Director Todd Waelterman said opening the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge should provide some relief for people who drive on downtown streets as well.

For instance, it should break up evening bottlenecks on Washington Avenue near the Martin Luther King entrance. Illinois-bound commuters who work on the western end of downtown St. Louis likely will opt to take Tucker Boulevard north to the I-70 bridge instead.

Traffic engineers will monitor the downtown street grid with an eye toward timing the traffic signals so traffic can move smoothly, Waelterman said.

“Our work really starts now,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest traffic change will be seen in the Metro East, where a realigned I-70 loops through Brooklyn and into East St. Louis before meeting up with Interstates 55 and 64.

There were 32 individual projects on the Illinois side, with a combined construction value of $274 million, said Jeff Church, IDOT’s implementation engineer. Some of the projects required prolonged interstate closures, ranging from a weekend to several days.

MORE BRIDGE WORK COMING

For motorists who have grown weary of construction, the break will be brief. After opening the new I-70 bridge, MoDOT and others will turn their focus to other high-profile interchanges and bridges near downtown St. Louis.

By this summer, IDOT will repair the deck and superstructure on the Martin Luther King Bridge, Church said. The work will close that span for six to nine months, beginning in late summer.

“We had to make sure the new bridge was done,” he said.

MoDOT will reconfigure antiquated ramps to and from the Poplar Street Bridge, including the one that now leads from the newly bypassed stretch of old Interstate 70. That section, northward to the new bridge, becomes part of I-44, effective Sunday.

Ultimately, a fifth eastbound lane will be added to the Poplar Street Bridge by sliding the existing traffic lanes to the south and running the new lane down the middle.

“We have been anxiously awaiting to address all of that but we really wanted to get a relief valve with the new Stan Musial Bridge,” Hitt explained.

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Ken Leiser is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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