JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission's endorsement of a controversial redesign of Highway 34/72 through Jackson will stand, despite pleas from city and county officials on Friday to reconsider the proposal.
However, Department of Transportation officials pledged to take local concerns into account as the project moves forward.
On May 3, the commission unanimously approved a plan to make the route a four-lane, divided expressway. Although there had been substantial opposition to the plan, no opponents attended that meeting.
Detractors of the Highway 34/72 proposal say building a center median would hamper access to homes and businesses along the route. They prefer a five-lane road featuring a center lane for left turns.
Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said he and other local officials were somewhat blindsided by commission's May action.
"We weren't aware they were going to vote on this project," Jones said. "All of a sudden they voted on it and we weren't even there."
Jones and Jackson Mayor Paul Sander nevertheless led a delegation of area residents to the capital later to ask the commission to rescind its earlier approval, or at least modify the project.
"I think their response to changing it totally to a five-lane is that it's not going to happen, but I do think they left some room for negotiations," Sander said following the delegation's presentation.
MoDOT chief engineer Kevin Keith said department officials and the state and district level will consider suggested changes and incorporate them into the department's plans when possible.
"Our district folks continue to work with that community," Keith said. "I think we've already modified our plans 13 times because of that ongoing interaction. I expect that as that project moves forward there will be more changes."
MoDOT maintains that the overriding issue is safety and claims that five-lane roads are inherently more dangerous than four-lane roads and that people call center lanes "suicide lanes" for a reason.
However, Jones disputes the contention that the portion of Highway 34/72 that is currently five lanes has contributed significantly to the number of accidents on the route. Accident data Jones collected from Jackson police, the county sheriff's department and the highway patrol show there were 816 reported accidents on the road from Jan. 1, 1997, through Sept. 19, 2001. Only 23 involved improper lane usage. Jones said those accidents weren't necessarily limited to improper center lane usage.
"It's not a big issue in my mind," Jones said.
MoDOT's current plans call for the three-and-a-half-mile project to be done in three phases at a cost of $16.3 million. The first two phases are part of MoDOT's current five-year construction plan.
Sander said the project is needed, but with modifications to allow left-turns at frequent intervals.
"We are not putting out feet in the sand and saying if we don't get a five-lane just like we want it, we don't want anything," Sander said. "A five-lane road makes more sense. If it can't be a total five-lane like we have on the east side of town, then give us some more access points than what you have planned at the present."
MoDOT officials have said putting a median on Highway 34/72 would directly affect 26 homes and six businesses. Another 104 homes and 27 businesses would be indirectly affected.