The basic facts


This blog is about one of the most dangerous bridges in the St. Louis Metro area that is on Highway 270 linking North County with the Metro East.  With an AADT of approximately 55,000 vehicles, 2 lanes in each direction, and no shoulders, any issues that happen on the Chain of Rocks Bridge (or even the canal bridge) can cause big problems almost instantly.  (In fact, anything that occurs between the Lilac exit to Illinois Route 203 exit can cause big problems, it does not need to happen on either bridge.)  We all know what can happen when this bridge is shut down for any reason, and if you lived in the Metro East (especially the Alton/River Bend) area on December 8, 2010, you clearly saw the nightmare unravel – and most of the real nightmare was not even covered by the local TV news stations.  It did not stop the locals from going on social networking sites and the local discussion boards, and the ones that did often lashed out about the problems with the bridge.  One of the more recent wrecks that happened was talked about on Facebook – and the people that commented on it did not think it was a surprise to see such a bad wreck happen.  The October 2012 canal bridge repairs caused peak hour delays of at least two hours with backups stretching at least 10 miles – that is with just one lane down.

The canal bridges were replaced in 2014 with the westbound on July 11 and eastbound on October 17.  The construction zone limits were lifted in the fall of 2015 along with the weight limits.

In April 2011, MoDOT gave out the safety record information for the Highway 270 mainline in North County from Route 370 to the river, and the safety rating east of Riverview exit was “very poor”.  Not surprising, as there has been many incidents on the Chain of Rocks Bridge ever since it was opened in September 1966.  In May 2013 during the canal bridge inspections, there were 3 major incidents in a 4 day period that forced traffic to head towards Alton. The locals have known about the problems for a long time, to the point where some have either changed their residence and/or their employer just to avoid that bridge.  With no shoulders on either the canal or river bridge, any vehicle that breaks down will block a lane of traffic, causing the potential of a bridge closing chain reaction accident (both bridge-closing accidents in December 2010 started out as stalled vehicles).  That section of 270 does not meet modern interstate highway standards due to the lack of shoulders, despite the fact it did not predate the interstate highway system.  (It followed Dunn Road in Missouri and Chain of Rocks Road in Illinois, both roads that were a part of US 66 and did predate the interstates.)  However, until 1994 the locals in the Alton/River Bend region had little option but to put up with the issues because they were still dealing with the even narrower 1928 Clark Bridge at that time, and any news regarding either bridge often made headlines in the Alton Telegraph.  When a MoDOT employee went to a city council meeting in a North County town in December 2013, one of the alderman had a concern of this section of 270 becoming a bottleneck.

However, MoDOT is not on the hook for that bridge when it comes to maintenance.  The so called bi-state agreement puts IDOT on the hook, and IDOT has proven time and time again that they would rather have major bridges fall in disrepair than be proactive.  Both the canal and river bridges are structurally deficient AND functionally obsolete (FHWA definition here).  In August 1994, two broken pins at an expansion joint on the Illinois side of the river bridge cause 3 of the 4 lanes to close for four days, resulting in some of the worst traffic jams to ever hit the Metro East, especially for the River Bend area.  The pavement on both bridges is in bad shape to the point that off-peak lane restrictions for repairs is common.  (The current bridge decks were installed 1996-1998.)

Last but not least, there is just 2 lanes in each direction.  This is the only part of the 270/255 loop that is not at least 3 lanes in each direction.  The AADT is approaching 60k vehicles on that 4 lane section, with no fewer than 10k of it being tractor trailers.  This bridge gets more truck traffic than the Poplar St. Bridge, because all the I-70 thru truck traffic find the Highway 270 corridor to be shorter and more efficient than Highway 70 through the city.  This section of 270 currently operates at LOS D, but in reality it tends to be LOS E or F during peak periods.  The East-West Gateway has rated this section of 270 with severe peak hour congestion back in July 2011.  With the opening of the new records center on Dunn Road near Route 367 and the major trucking distribution centers at the interchange with Route 111, the amount of traffic will only increase in the future.  The US DOT is also looking at this section of 270 for the possible corridor for I-70 Corridors of the Future.  (In fact, InDOT anticipates that section of 270 being used as the corridor.)

Historically IDOT has never given a care about their section of 270.  Between 1996-1998, they rebuilt all the bridges east of the canal but left the entire section at just 2 lanes in each direction (except for a 1 mile section at 255), and the only thing that got done with the river and canal bridges were replacing the bridge deck and repair expansion joints.  In addition, they have been hush-hush with anything regarding the corridor, including their canal bridge replacement plans. (This only started making the media right as the  construction started, and the locals were not happy when they found out about it.)  However, some of their improvement talks have been leaked out in some form or another, including articles in the Alton Telegraph dating in the late 1980s.  MoDOT has been more proactive in improving 270 and has actually walked the walk with various projects at 44, 40, Dorsett, Page, and 170 that have happened since the late 1980s.

UPDATE June 2016:  IDOT has finally posted the long awaited public meetings.  It is finally time to tell them as it is and make sure they don’t get away with keeping things under wraps like they did on the canal bridge project.

The final factor is the weather – the history with certain weather events is not that good.  A winter storm hitting at the wrong time can cause big problems – to the point the time period from December through March is often the most dangerous time of the year.

Last updated:  19:17 June 25, 2016 – added the IDOT public hearings

Comments
  1. Ed says:

    MoDOT also gives complete project details for all public work projects.

  2. Jim says:

    You mentioned the rebuild project on 270 in the late 90s which had the Illinois side overpasses rebuilt (4 total between the canal and 255), but note that every single one of those bridges happen to have 6 lanes on them (with the exception of 1, which was designed to be able to relatively cheaply have the additional lanes on them), and though they’re currently only axillary lanes, could easily become main traffic lanes without any additional construction or replacements of said bridges. I have included street views of each in hopes of making clarify any confusing parts of the points I am trying to make. From east to west:

    -Lewis & Clark Blvd (IL Rt. 3) was formerly a cloverleaf interchange, but no longer is. However, the 3 lanes on each side on the bridge (the outer ones which were formerly the cloverleaf loop ramp connectors) remain. Obviously there are still only 4 main lines, but the bridge has the 6 lanes, and the outer 2 could become main lanes if the 6 laning is ever constructed.
    STREET VIEW: https://maps.google.com/?ll=38.765997,-90.124556&spn=0.005705,0.013937&t=m&z=17&layer=c&cbll=38.765997,-90.124556&panoid=XcF5U7Yo4joZcXdGW7dnyA&cbp=12,59.87,,0,4.3

    -The overpass over St. Thomas Road & the NS rail line (being the only overpass or bridge of any type between the canal and 255 without an interchange/exit) is a set of double bridges, however there is a support beam built in between the two bridges, clearly set in place for the possibility of adding 2 additional lanes in the center (one in each direction), requiring minimal construction as the supports to hold said additional lanes are already in place.
    STREET VIEW: https://maps.google.com/?ll=38.765713,-90.11586&spn=0.005705,0.013937&t=m&z=17&layer=c&cbll=38.765713,-90.11586&panoid=_EYdQG2WWRZjRrrYLaJjmg&cbp=12,340.53,,0,-17.74

    -The Old Alton Road/rail lines/IL Rt. 203 overpass by Mitchell & near Pontoon Beach has 8 lanes. There are the 4 main lanes on the interstate, plus the axillary lanes which connect to the exits, and between the cloverleaf ramps there are 2 axillary lanes on each side, for a total of 8. Obviously these axillary lanes could easily be converted into main traffic lanes.
    STREET VIEW: https://maps.google.com/?ll=38.759354,-90.093287&spn=0.005706,0.013937&t=m&z=17&layer=c&cbll=38.759499,-90.09368&panoid=OztQysJnnIvnM_Pq6PwJYQ&cbp=12,269.59,,0,-1.56

    -Finally, there’s Illinois Route 111, just north of Pontoon Beach, and the last overpass before the 6 lane section begins by I-255. Due to the purpose of the axillary lanes on this exit, the cloverleaf interchange would most likely have to be reconfigured in order to allow for the axillary lanes on the bridge to be converted into main traffic lanes, but even that would not require the bridges to be reconstructed.
    https://maps.google.com/?ll=38.757664,-90.067591&spn=0.002853,0.006968&t=m&z=18&layer=c&cbll=38.757664,-90.067591&panoid=bsAb91uSZJxdCjFi7cKYGg&cbp=12,110.92,,0,2.42

    Additionally, the canal bridge (though not currently being built with 6 lanes) IS being designed with very wide shoulders, wide enough that it will allow for 2 lanes (one in each direction) to be added in the future. Finally, the median between the canal and 255 is plenty wide that there is room to add 2 lanes down the middle the entire way between the canal and 255. While I am CERTAINLY NOT defending IDOT, and I COMPLETELY AGREE that the 6 laning needs to be done sooner rather than later (typical of government to hold off on important things, haha), at least they have it built so that they can relatively inexpensively (and without a whole lot of additional construction) add the 2 lanes in the future.

  3. Jim says:

    To further what I said, even though I think they should do it now rather than later, IDOT probably thought “why bother now when the river bridge will still remain 4 lanes?”

    • kharvey10 says:

      Jim, been wondering for that and why IDOT didn’t set the girders on those piers back in the late 1990s. I remember that construction from 1996-1998 very well – complete with the very tight lanes (8-6 width restriction on the river bridge – I did have a photo of one of those signs at the Route 3 interchange back in the day but it was a very poor quality photo). While it is unlikely that anyone will know their reasoning behind their decisions, there was a change in district engineers in both the late 1990s and sometime between 2004-2008. I did know that there was next to nothing in the news on the canal bridge replacement project until the construction was about to start and most of the locals were pissed when they heard about it. I think the Route 3 interchange rebuild was a step backward – it showed last month when the Clark Bridge was restricted due to the flooding. MoDOT wants to fix up their North County portion of 270 – but I have never heard of IDOT ever asking for public input on theirs. In fact back in May when some tv reporter ran a story over the string of incidents during the Canal Bridge inspections not one person from IDOT even went on camera.

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