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Highway 40 will reopen Dec. 7

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 6, 2009 - Highway 40 drivers will get an early Christmas present -- the reopening of the highway on Monday, Dec. 7.

Gateway Constructors and the Missouri Department of Transportation announced the date on Friday, saying the two-year project will end nearly a month early and $11 million under budget. The project, originally budgeted at $535 million, is expected to come in at $524 million, MoDOT Director Pete Rahn said.

The announcement that the highway will reopen in time for much of the holiday shopping season is good news for motorists -- and area leaders hope it will also be good news for business.

"I think we're getting an early Christmas present," County Executive Charlie Dooley said in an interview before the announcement. "I think shoppers will be happy. I think retailers will be happy. I think everybody will be happy."

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay agreed. "As Charlie said, this is really going to have a positive impact on many businesses that may have been affected by this. It's going to get even easier to get to the middle of the region."

The reconstructed highway will be a "long-time asset and, I think, economic generator" for the region, Slay added.

Municipalities adjacent to the highway have reported a decline in sales tax revenue as traffic was rerouted during the two-year project although they say the flailing economy was also a reason for the decline.

Rahn, Dooley and Slay each cited cooperation among the city, the county, MoDOT and other agencies in bringing the project to a successful and early conclusion. The second half began last Dec. 15, after the first half of the project, from I-170 west to Ballas, finished a couple of weeks early.

"It is an example of regional cooperation that I believe can serve as a model for St. Louis and other urban areas on how to accomplish great projects," Rahn said.

He also praised the work of Gateway Construction, the contractor, and project director Lesley Hoffarth who he said did "an incredible job."

Slay praised MoDOT for keeping the public abreast of alternate routes and the public for heeding the agency's advice during the project. He even praised the press for getting the word out about the construction schedule and alternate routes for motorists.

"We're very thrilled," Rahn said of the early opening date. Gateway Contractors had until Dec. 31 to reopen the highway. "We've delivered a fantastic project to the region," he added.

Dan Galvin, Gateway Construction spokesman, called the project "the best example of teamwork I've ever seen in a job."

The early completion is good news for Gateway Contractors, too, which will receive a total of $5 million in bonuses -- $2 million each for meeting the deadline for completion of the east section and the west section and $1 million for ensuring "regional mobility during the project."

What can drivers expect?

"It's important for people to understand almost every intersection on this eastern stretch is different than it was before," Lesley Hoffarth, MoDOT project director, said. "So be patient, watch the signs and we're sure you'll be able to figure out where you need to go very quickly."

The biggest changes are:

Collector/distributor lanes near the I-170 interchange will separate through traffic on I-64 from motorists wanting to get between Brentwood and Hanley.

The "flyover" lanes will be restriped to one lane in each direction "so you'll have a little bit more room to make your way around those ramps when we're done," Hoffarth said.

The Big Bend interchange will be a full interchange with ramps to and from the west and east.

The Hampton interchange will be a single point urban interchange where all the ramps come around to a central set of signals like they do at Kingshighway. An additional eastbound ramp will connect with Oakland on the east side of Hampton. "You'll get off the highway at Hampton, go under the Hampton intersection and connect right in with Oakland," Hoffarth said.

MoDOT will monitor traffic on the highway and surface streets in the first few weeks to make changes as needed, Ed Hassinger, St. Louis area district engineer for MoDOT, said.

Although all of the interchanges will be open next month, Gateway Constructors has until July 31 to finish striping and landscaping.

MoDOT will restripe I-44 and I-70 next spring and summer because the work cannot be done in cold weather.

Rahn reflected on the early predictions of "Carmageddon" and gridlock that some skeptics expressed when MoDOT, in an unprecedented move, announced the two-year closure of the highway. "I'm glad they were wrong," he said.

The successful early conclusion of the project shows that closing the highway was the best approach, MoDOT officials said.

"We were pretty confident going in, and the team delivered," Ed Hassinger, St. Louis area district engineer for MoDOT, said.

St. Louis will lose an interesting distinction when the highway reopens. “We will no longer have the only interstate in the nation that terminates in a Target parking lot,” Rahn said.

The two-year reconstruction of a nine-mile segment of the region's main east-west artery is the largest construction project in MoDOT's history. It's also MoDOT's first design-build project -- construction begins while the design is still underway. The traditional method of highway construction is to complete the design first, seek bids on the work and then construct the project. By overlapping the design and construction, the design-build approach allows for faster construction.

MoDOT is taking some "small lessons" away from the project that it will put to work on future projects but the big lesson from the project is what teamwork can do, Hoffarth said in an interview before today's announcement.

"The biggest one (lesson) is just that it's amazing what you can accomplish when everyone pulls together and works as a team," she said.

She credited MoDOT, St. Louis County, St. Louis, East-West Gateway Council of governments, municipalities along the corridor and others for proving "the power of working together as a team" and making the project a success.

"The community has shown we can really do great things when we all work together," she said. "When we started down this road 10 years ago, no one ever really thought this would happen."

As late as early 2005 following a five-year environmental process, officials envisioned the major reconstruction of the highway from Kingshighway to Spoede Road as a design-bid-build project taking between 6 and 16 years and costing between $650 million and $750 million, she said.

"Then the planets kind of aligned," Hoffarth said. Driving that alignment was what she called a "a big chunk of money" from the passage of Amendment 3 that ended the diversion of highway user fees to certain state agencies and redirected them to road and bridge projects

Around the same time, the project received environmental clearance and the Missouri legislature gave MoDOT the authority to use the design-build method of construction, which reduced project delivery time by overlapping the design and construction phases.

"That's when we decided we really did have a chance to get this built as one project," Hoffarth said.

"While closing the highway seemed like a really drastic measure, and it was, we had the engineering behind us to show it really could work," Hoffarth said.

"People who were pretty skeptical to begin with and thought this is just going to be an awful disaster -- almost every one of them has said, 'This is the best decision you could have made'."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about transportation.