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By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission on Friday approved a controversial redesign of Highway 34-72 through Jackson, Mo., opposed by some city residents and business owners.
The six-member commission unanimously endorsed a Department of Transportation recommendation that would make the route a four-lane, divided expressway.
A portion of Highway 34-72 in Jackson is currently five lanes, including a center turn lane that allows easy access to arterial roads from either direction. Some in the city have complained that a center median would make it inconvenient to reach homes and businesses along that route.
The three-and-a-half-mile project will be done in three phases and cost about $16.3 million. The first two phases are part of MoDOT's current five-year construction plan.
The commission typically approves roadway designs as recommended by MoDOT staff without discussion. However, because of the negative community reaction, Scott Meyer, MoDOT's district engineer for Southeast Missouri, gave commissioners a detailed presentation of the issues related to the Highway 34-72 project.
Meyer outlined the opposition arguments, as well as MoDOT's reasons for why a four-lane route is the best option.
Commissioners made few comments following the presentation. No opponents to the plan attended the meeting, which was held at MoDOT headquarters.
Jackson Alderman Joe Bob Baker said he would have liked to attend the meeting, but he only found out about it late Thursday afternoon. Baker has been a leading voice opposing MoDOT's four-lane proposal.
Baker said he thought Jackson residents' views weren't fully represented at the meeting.
Meyer said 26 homes and six businesses would be directly affected by putting a median on Highway 34-72, which would prevent left turns except at traffic signals. He said another 104 homes and 27 businesses would be indirectly affected.
However, Meyer said accidents on five-lane roads, which have left-turn center lanes dubbed "suicide lanes," occur at a higher rate than on any other type of road, including two-lane, rural highways.
The key reason for a four-lane road, he said, is safety.
"It will protect the safety of drivers, and we think that is important," Meyer said.
Some opponents have said that a planned pedestrian and bike path to run parallel to the redesigned road would be dangerous.
"We are having a hard time trying to get our hands on how that would be dangerous," Meyer said, but added that a path is an amenity highway planners could live without if residents don't want it.
MoDOT has taken great steps to gather community input on the project, Meyer said, holding 37 formal public meetings with various groups in the city, two open houses that attracted 350 people and fielding 101 inquiries made by telephone from residents since June 2000.
Meyer said 13 changes have been made to the project's design as a result.
"We are trying to minimize the inconvenience without compromising safety," Meyer said.
MoDOT director Henry Hungerbeeler said four-lane roads prove to be a boon for motorists, not a burden.
"In fact, it is more convenient because it takes less time to pass a business and come back than to sit in the congestion on a five-lane," Hungerbeeler said.
Despite the commission's vote, Baker said he and other Jackson residents opposing the change are prepared to continue. About 1,500 signatures have been gathered against the plan, and Baker plans to gather more. Perhaps opponents of the plan will present the signatures to the governor, he said.
"We may be in a losing battle, but we're not going to give up now," Baker said.
News editor Tony Hall contributed to this report.