To get action, start with man who drives biggest bulldozer

Friday, November 2, 2001

As you know by now, I like to tell other people how to do their jobs.

Just look at all the excellent advice I've given the city.

I think you will all agree that the roundabout is a tourist magnet today because of my timely and subtle pointers.

And surely you see how I straightened out the orange-barrel mess. A scant three months ago you couldn't drive from here to there without a major detour or two. Look at our streets now. They're smooth as a baby's bottom, and even the New Madrid Street project, which was going for a Guinness record, is finally finished.

So I'm sure you will understand why I think it's so important for me to give some useful tips to the Missouri Department of Transportation as work begins on the new I-55 bridge over the Diversion Channel.

What prompted me to take on this assignment was all the coffee chatter I've heard ever since the four lanes of traffic between Cape Girardeau and Scott City have been squeezed down to two lanes.

I don't think I've heard this much moaning since we found out "Survivor" is a well-scripted sham.

(Oops. I didn't mean to spill the beans for those of you who still think lives really are at stake in this weekly drama of nonexistent happenstance.)

It should give all of us a little satisfaction to know that there is one person in particular who has to drive back and forth every day through the I-55 construction bottleneck: Scott Myers, district engineer for MoDOT.

If you've ever been around Scott, you've no doubt found yourself wondering how such a nice fellow ever wound up in a job that takes so much guff. Or how he keeps smiling.

I knew I wanted to visit with Scott this week about the Diversion Channel bridge project, but I wanted to have some understanding of the situation first. After all, I don't have to go that way very often, but those who do have been telling me some nightmarish stories.

So I went on a field trip Wednesday.

My wife and I headed south -- destination Sikeston -- just like Scott has to do every morning when he leaves his home in Cape and goes to the MoDOT district headquarters just north of Sikeston.

We took Kingshighway south to the interstate. We were still on Kingshighway when we ran into a long line of vehicles backed up from I-55 over the ramp that crosses the interstate.

I checked the clock on the dash. It was 4:39 p.m.

All of the vehicles in the line we were in had to merge into one lane of southbound I-55 that already was backed up as far as I could see. In addition, more vehicles were merging into the on-ramp lane from the Dutchtown highway. If someone had asked me to guess how long it would take to get past the Diversion Channel from where we were, I would have estimated 45 minutes to an hour.

But at 4:49 p.m. -- exactly 10 minutes from when we reached the backed-up traffic, we were clear of the construction zone and doing 70 mph on our way to Sikeston.

So when I talked to Scott, I asked if 10 minutes was about average and suggested the signs along the interstate warning of possible 30-minute delays might be contributing to the problem. Scott said he had heard of delays as long as 40 minutes, but he said he thought most motorists were making it through the construction zone quicker than that.

The most irritating thing I saw was that cars and trucks already past the merging traffic continued to go about 15 mph through the remainder of the construction zone, even though a 50-mph limit is clearly posted on electronic signboards.

I suggested to Scott that perhaps a minimum speed also should be advertised. He reminded me that there already is a minimum speed limit on all of Missouri's interstates: 40 mph. He said he would check with he State Highway Patrol to see if that applied to work areas.

Among the questions I've heard over coffee is why MoDOT didn't build a temporary bridge to handle the interstate traffic during this project. Scott said a temporary bridge was considered. But that would have meant the project would have taken longer than the estimated two years, and there would have been considerable additional cost.

Scott believes, based on his experience with highway work zones, that most motorists will adjust to the construction area in short order. He too is frustrated by being restricted to one lane of traffic each way when there doesn't appear to be any work going on. He has communicated to the contractor that the barrels could be moved to open up the extra lanes when that happens. But it appears highway contractors have the same bedrock rule as the contractors who do city street work: We'll do it our way, so butt out.

The best thing that could happen would be for motorists to learn how to keep going through the work area without stalling to a crawl.

As for the mess in Dutchtown, where there now are more people waiting to turn left than there are residents, I can only say this might be a good time to open some kind of drive-through business.

And if anyone else has any good ideas for MoDOT, I suggest you call Scott Myers instead of saving all your best shots for the coffee crew. I have yet to meet a single coffee clubber who can build a good highway. Scott does it every day.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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