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Lawmaker calls for end to the shifting speed limits on I-270

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2009 - For almost a year, the Missouri Department of Transportation has been conducting a variable-speed limit experiment on Interstate 270, in which the speed limit changes from 40 miles an hour to 60 miles an hour, depending on traffic congestion, time of day and road conditions.

The experiment has another year to go.

But state Rep. Bert Atkins, D-Florissant, wants it to end -- now.

He points to a department study, recently released, which cites "a high level of dissatisfaction" by motorists and law enforcement agencies.

“The variable speed limit experiment on I-270 needs to be ended,” Atkins said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Both drivers and law enforcement officials say the experiment has failed to achieve its goals of improving safety and traffic flow and reducing congestion. Therefore, I’m asking MoDOT to end this experiment immediately.”

MoDOT spokesman Andrew Gates acknowledged that "the feedback has been mixed,'' but notes that the variable-speed experiment is supposed to last two years before any conclusions are reached.

"Variable speed limits have been used with great success in Europe and other parts of the country,'' Gates said.

He says the aim is to keep traffic flowing smoothly, with fewer stops-and-starts, and fewer serious accidents.

Gates compared the idea to pouring rice through a funnel. Pour too much, and the rice overflows. Pour it in at a steady, measured pace and the rice flows through, Gates said.

Atkins, meanwhile, is citing portions of the MoDOT study, such as:

“The general public has indicated a high level of dissatisfaction with the system and has serious reservations regarding its effectiveness. The vast majority also feels that it has not increased public safety, reduced stop-and-go traffic, created a uniform traveling speed, or increased driver compliance with posted speed limits....

“Like the general public on-line survey respondents, law enforcement officers also had a negative assessment of the system. Officers do not feel that it has reduced the number of crashes, alleviated stop-and go-traffic, or reduced congestion. Moreover, they overwhelmingly feel that it has been ineffective in increasing driver compliance with posted speed limits. The majority feels that it should be eliminated and not considered for expansion.”

MoDOT’s Organizational Results Division conducted the study in cooperation with the Missouri University of Science and Technology and HDR Engineering.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.