Well, the wait is over. St. Louis’s two year traffic nightmare is about to come to an end.
What’s that? It wasn’t really that bad? Oh, I guess you’re right, but you wouldn’t have known that from reading this blog – dead since the original shutdown began in January of 2008. The original predictions of mayhem (including some of my own) thankfully didn’t come true. Yet, as the highway plans to re-open, I thought it would be a good time to embarrass myself some more by issuing some final predictions.
Highway 40 traffic will flow more smoothly
There are a lot of good improvements accompanying the Highway 40 reconstruction, most notably on the mainline highway itself. The ramp from eastbound 40 to northbound I-170 has been a welcome relief for West Country drivers headed to Clayton or Washington University. Fewer — yet longer — on-ramps will eliminate congestion. Back in 2007, I predicted better traffic for Highway 40, and today’s Post-Dispatch article confirms it. I look forward to seeing it.
So, the mainline highway design is the winner, but what about the crossing arterials?
Brentwood and Hanley intersections will suffer
A big reason for the anticipated improved traffic flow at Highway 40 and I-170 is the merging of the Brentwood and Hanley exits into one. From either direction, there’s just one off-ramp and one on-ramp for both Brentwood and Hanley combined.
This is great for flow on Highway 40, but it also increases the amount of traffic going through the lights at Brentwood and Hanley. Exiting eastbound 40 for Hanley? You’ll have to stop first at Brentwood. On Hanley wanting to get to westbound 40? Again, plan on a stop at Brentwood. Same story if you flip eastbound/westbound and Hanley/Brentwood.
Fortunately, Brentwood will have less traffic due to the ramp from eastbound 40 to northbound I-170. Yet, all told, I think you’ll see more traffic and probably more congestion at the Brentwood and Hanley intersections. Keep an eye here over the next few weeks — first to witness all the confusion and complaints over the merged exits, and then to see if traffic flows well at these intersections.
Lindbergh intersection at risk for gridlock
You might think that the Lindbergh intersection is old news. After all, it’s been open nearly a year without any significant issues. However, traffic exiting Highway 40 to Lindbergh has been lower than it will be after the re-opening, and I’m a little worried.
As you know, the new interchange at Lindbergh introduced a new stoplight for the Single Point Urban Interchange (SPUI). This light is awfully close to the Lindbergh-Clayton intersection (see image), and — prior to construction — southbound Lindbergh traffic would routinely back up under the Highway 40 overpass. If that were to happen with the new interchange, it could block traffic from getting through the interchange at all, causing gridlock. Additionally, those drivers going from eastbound Highway 40 to southbound Lindbergh have no merge lane, just a yield sign. Backed up traffic on Lindbergh will block these drivers from getting off the highway.
Careful timing of these lights will go a long way toward avoiding gridlock, but I wonder if these close intersections can handle it.
Well, that’s all my predictions for now, and likely my last post for this blog. I’ll leave the site up for another couple months, but I suspect by February, the Highway 40/I-64 closure will be a distant memory.
After more than six month of dangerous conditions on I-170 near Eager Road, MoDOT has finally taken some action, though some might consider it a bit extreme.
Back in July, I documented the dangers of an interstate with just a double yellow line separating traffic. This year, things only got worse. If you are southbound on I-170 and want to continue to Eager Road, you steer left of the concrete barrier, right next to oncoming traffic north on I-170. This has resulted in at least a couple of reports of wrong way traffic on the west-to-north flyover ramp.
My recommendation was simple. Line the tenth of a mile of 2-way traffic with tubular markers (shown at the right), similar to those on Hanley at Dale/Eager,. Simple and space-saving. Instead, Gateway Constructors and MoDOT decided to shutdown northbound I-170 traffic from Eager Road. Here’s their explanation:
Though north and southbound I-170 traffic has been in a similar configuration since May without incident, the recent opening of the south to east flyover ramp moved the Eager exit to the left lane, while the center and right lanes took the flyover ramp to eastbound I-64. The design was safe and there have been no major incidents, but the public concern for a change has driven this decision.
C’mon. It’s safe, there’s no incidents, but “public concern” resulted in the change? How can wrong-way drivers on an interstate be considered safe? If it was really safe, there wouldn’t be a need to shut down the northbound lane. It’s not safe, but MoDOT and Gateway Constructors won’t admit it.
What impact will this shutdown have on traffic? Normally, I’d say that this would cause a traffic mess, since the only way to get on northbound I-170 from Hanley is to cut across Eager, north on Brentwood, then get on I-170 at Galleria Parkway. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since January 2nd it’s that traffic jams are awfully hard to come by. Many of the alternative routes are actually at the same or lower volumes than before the shutdown. Go figure.
In preparation for “Manic Monday”, I thought readers might appreciate a summary of the trouble spots seen so far with the Highway 40 (I-64) shutdown. As you know, things haven’t been all that bad so far, but the conventional wisdom is that Monday will show increased traffic loads as people return from the holidays.
Shown on the map below are all the slow areas and trouble spots, as identified by MoDOT and St. Louis County in their daily briefing reports and rush hour traffic summaries. I have to give credit to MoDOT and St. Louis County for their work here. It’s seldom that you see government respond to issues so quickly and with as much transparency as we’ve seen in the first few days of the shutdown.
Just click on the icons or routes for more information. You can also view the full map here.
Post4TrafficOnline.com is the 800-pound gorilla in St. Louis traffic reporting sites. Put together just in time for the Highway 40 closure, this site should combine the in-depth reporting of the Post-Dispatch with the visually appealing videos from Channel 4 KMOV. Endless commercials on KMOV bill it as “the ultimate source for traffic information online in St. Louis”.
In reality, though, this “site” is just a single page that mushes all of the Post-Dispatch and KMOV content into one snapshot. It doesn’t behave as a single site. If you click on the button to play the highlighted video, it opens a new window on the KMOV site (with the video about 1/4 of the size on the home page). Want to click on an accident on the traffic map? Sorry, that pops up a new window as well and then loads the “real” traffic map, where you have to click on the accident again. In the end, you’ve got all kinds of browser windows open and no coherent view of traffic.
This set up might be forgivable, but the content is just wrong.
Here’s three examples:
There’s a mapping tool on the site that’s supposed to route you around the construction. When I asked it to get me from University City to Town and Country, the generated directions routed me onto the closed Highway 40. C’mon, this is basics folks!
Another neat looking feature gives you drive times and congestion reports. The problem? Around the lunch hour today, several areas (I-270, and 40 west of I-270) were reported as “gridlocked”, even though Gateway Guide cameras showed clear sailing throughout.
Well, at least they reported the closed section of Highway 40 as “gridlocked”!
(In fact, as I write this post, the “Drive Times and Congestion” feature is now missing from the Post4TrafficOnline site)
Finally, I found it odd that the featured video this afternoon was the afternoon weather forecast. Is this a traffic web site or a weather web site?
Looks like the Post-Dispatch and KMOV have a little bit of work to do.
To watch the local news and read the newspaper, one might be forgiven for thinking that Armageddon is at St. Louis’ doorstep. Using the verb “survive” to describe a commute could be a bit of poetic license. That’s why I’m going to buck the trend and make the prediction that the Highway 40 shutdown will not be all that bad… at least at first.
Sure, you may wait an extra cycle at a light, and if your previous commute was straight down Highway 40, it will take longer. But initially, at least, you won’t see gridlock nor will 20 minute commutes turn into 2 hours. Why? Quite simple. The media has scared the daylights out of anyone who is not required by their job or the law to travel in the vicinity of Highway 40. The fashionable New Year’s resolutions are to cancel any discretionary trips near West County.
Forgive the diversion, but this reminds me of a story. Back in 1993, I was starting a new semester at college and was watching the local St. Louis news with a foreign exchange student who’d just arrived in the U.S. from Germany the day before. The lead story on the news was that Highway 40 in the Chesterfield Valley was re-opened after the floods had receded. What was this student’s reaction to this clearly earth shattering news for the St. Louis driving-obsessed public? Laughter. She simply couldn’t understand how a road’s status could be a lead news story. I guess she could be forgiven, though, since she came from a country with an actual functioning nationwide mass transit system.
Back to today’s Highway 40 obsession. Yes, you could get up at 4:30 AM tomorrow and watch the “Special Report” on Highway 40 on your favorite local news station. Not that there can be anything useful to say at 4:30 in the morning, other than it’s dark, cold, and, yes, Highway 40 is closed. But it will continue to feed the frenzy and keep people away from the roads.
I can’t say how long this hysteria will last — at least until the next local celebrity is caught drinking and driving. Eventually the media frenzy will die off and word will get out that the roads aren’t so bad. Since those discretionary trips can’t be postponed forever, the drivers will return and venture out again. When that happens, my previous predictions will come true — some key chokepoints will cause headaches for many a driver in 2008.
Earlier this year, MoDOT insisted there would not be an official published detour for the closure of Highway 40 in 2008. But indeed, there is one: Eastbound, it’s north on I-270, east on I-70, then south on I-170. Westbound is the reverse: north on I-170, west on I-70, and south on I-270. Of course, this is the only possible route MoDOT could publish, as it’s the only all-interstate route around the closure. Will anyone actually take it? Perhaps the stray visitor might, but at a whopping 22.7 miles (vs. 6.2 miles on Highway 40), most St. Louisans will be looking for a shortcut.
I drove southbound I-170 today and was surprised to find that it was still just one lane from Galleria Parkway to Eager Road and Highway 40. As you may recall, the reconfiguration of I-170 was supposed to be a two week project finishing December 17th. On December 19th, MoDOT spokesperson Linda Wilson said she expected it to be finished by that weekend (Dec. 22 and 23). Now it’s December 31st, and the rerouting is not done. Thankfully, I don’t anticipate this would affect the shutdown, since the current lane configuration can easily feed to the new flyover ramp.
However, combined with the constant delays in the I-44 restriping (still not done as of yesterday), the real question is: do these small delays add up? With challenges in getting things ready for the shutdown, is there any hope that MoDOT can deliver on the promised times for completion? Perhaps MoDOT turned off those “Countdown to Completion” signs for reasons other than it was “confusing”?
As the closure of Highway 40 forces thousands to take side streets and wait at stoplights, I imagine the MoDOT and St. Louis County traffic engineers may just take this comic to heart:
Long Light(Courtesy: xkcd, a great geek comic strip — Original URL)
I bet MoDOT never expected the I-44 restriping project to be one of the stickiest situations so far in the Highway 40/I-64 construction project. First were the concerns about the safety of moving from four lanes to five. Then, the project was delayed from a scheduled completion of November 1st (as reported by the Kirkwood-Webster Times) to still not being done 10 days before the Highway 40 shutdown. Finally is the fiasco of the actual restriping itself — I drove I-44 to downtown on Monday, and it was frightening: vanishing lane lines, wide lanes, and a sudden move from five lanes to three near the I-55 merge. As expected, MoDOT said the situations were temporary and due in part to the recent weather. However, 6 days later, I still found many problems with the restriping.
The glare from the sun on the camera might magnify the problem, but I can assure you that the lane lines were quite difficult to see at times. MoDOT needs to do the following:
Finish the restriping — this includes the missing right lane line on eastbound I-44, and all the ramps.
Repaint all the faded lines — this needs to last for two years and the current condition is unacceptable. If the weather’s too cold, then perhaps they should get out there with blowtorches. That’s what I saw in New Jersey last week as road workers there used blowtorches to dry the roads in preparation for painting during cold, wet weather
Regrind out the old lines — in too many places, the old lane lines still appear white. They need to be ground out again.
If MoDOT expects I-44 to take up the most traffic from the Highway 40 shutdown, then they need to get this restriping right. And the “temporary situation” excuse won’t cut it. If someone’s in an accident due to these poor lane lines, they won’t care if the situation was there for a day or a year. If it isn’t safe, it needs to be fixed immediately.
Most drivers are already dreading January 2008, with the shutdown of Highway 40/I-64 from Ballas to I-170. But the recently announced bridge closures will only compound problems on the weekends. If you live along the Highway 40 corridor, you might want to plan a weekend getaway in January or plan to snuggle up by the fire with your loved one.
Each bridge closure is shown above — just click on the icons for more information. The most troubling will be the Brentwood shutdown the weekends of January 11-13 and 18-20. Eager road to I-170 may already be bogged down, so you might be best off trying McCutcheon. Or just plan ahead and get to Hanley Road from Manchester (on the south) or Clayton (on the north).
Highway 40 Insight analyzes the Highway 40 construction project from the perspective of an everyday driver. Entries are written by Jason Hunt, who has no education in traffic engineering, but doesn't let that stop him from commenting on traffic matters. more info . . .