Missouri's biggest highway project ever begins

Monday, March 19, 2007

RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Mo. (AP) -- The largest highway project in Missouri history began with a groundbreaking ceremony Monday, where even supporters of the Interstate 64 project said it will be rough on St. Louis-area commuters.

The $535 million project will rebuild 10 miles of the busy interstate and 12 interchanges in the St. Louis region. It involves closing whole stretches of the highway at points, a strategy that transportation officials said will speed up the work and optimize worker safety. Opponents fear it will cause massive traffic tie-ups.

"It's going to be tough for a couple of years, but when it's done, it'll be worth it," said Missouri Highways and Transportation Commissioner Bill McKenna.

The ceremony took place in a neighborhood where houses are being demolished for the project. That prompted Richmond Heights Mayor Betty Humphrey to stay away, saying it was out of respect for families in her community being displaced by the project.

While most agree the rebuild is overdue, there has been disagreement about the plan to close down chunks of Interstate 64, still known locally as Highway 40, to complete the work.

"I think it's ironic that in the name of progress for the region, they're going to put a stranglehold on one of the most important highway arteries for the state," said state Rep. Scott Muschany, R-Frontenac, following the ceremony.

St. Louis resident Carolyn Patton, 60, said her house is in a neighborhood next to the project, and she feared the construction schedule would make it near impossible to get around.

"Personally, I don't know how I'm going to get out of the area in which I live," she said.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., wrote a letter to Missouri Department of Transportation director Pete Rahn raising concerns. He wanted assurances that measures will be in place to handle greater volumes of traffic on substitute corridors by 2008; to establish additional, temporary parking lots to support increased public bus and light-rail ridership; and to improve communication with the public.

Akin also proposed a trial run of the Interstate 64 shut-down in October to test traffic diversion plans and to identify any needed additional measures.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat, sounded a positive note at the ceremony.

"If you talk about economic development, you have to talk about infrastructure," he said. The rebuild will result in a great highway, he said.

The project involves rebuilding I-64 from west of Spoede Road to east of Kingshighway. It includes a new interchange at I-170 and adds one lane in each direction from west of Speoede to I-170. It includes reconstruction of bridges and pavement, according to information provided by Gateway Constructors, the team hired for the project, and MoDOT.

Construction begins this spring, but I-64 lanes will not be affected during peak hours until 2008. The project is scheduled for completion by July 31, 2010.

Officials said the western half of I-64 from Ballas to Brentwood will be closed in 2008 and the eastern half from I-170 to Kingshighway will be closed in 2009. All lanes of I-64 and I-170 will be open by Dec. 31, 2009.

Interstates 70 and 44 will be the main alternate routes. An additional, temporary lane in each direction will open on I-70 from I-270 to I-170 and on I-44 from I-270 to downtown.

The effort is the first design-build project for Missouri's Department of Transportation, where the design and construction are performed by a team working under the same contract.

MoDOT has established a new Web site, www.thenewi64.org that will provide updated alternate routes.

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