MoDOT presents details on two plans for Center Junction construction

by Gregory Dullum ~ Editor

Officials from the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) presented two plans for the construction of a diverging diamond interchange at I-55 and Hwy. 61 (Center Junction) during the July 26 special meeting of SEMPO (Southeast Metropolitan Planning Organization).

These were the same two plans that previously been discussed, but MoDOT now had maps showing traffic flow for the early and late stages of both plans.

After much discussion and planning with local officials, MoDOT had originally put the construction of the interchange out for bid, hoping for a price tag of around $12 million. On the original plans, traffic would be down to one lane each way on Hwy. 61 and all freeway accesses would remain open most of the time during the construction.

When the bids came in, they ranged from $18.5 million to $24 million, and all bids were rejected as being excessive.

After speaking with the contractors, MoDOT felt it could get lower bids by closing Hwy. 61 between Jackson and Cape for seven months. Meanwhile, right turns on and off I-55 would remain open during construction. One reason for the high bids was because it involved “a significant amount of staging” to keep access open in all directions.

City officials objected to this plan because it was felt that closing through traffic between Jackson and Cape for seven months would cause economic hardships for businesses in both communities, but especially along Hwy. 61 in Jackson, and would make commuting between the cities a nightmare.

During those seven months of closure, construction crews would be free to build the diverging diamond lanes that will go under the I-55 bridges without having traffic in their way. Also, construction of new, shorter I-55 bridges could go on unimpeded by traffic passing under them.

After the seven-month period, traffic between Jackson and Cape on Hwy. 61 will transfer to the newly constructed diverging diamond. I-55 on and off ramps would remain right turn only until the project is completed in about two years.

During the first phase of this plan, traffic going north on I-55 could not exit at Center Junction to go to Jackson. Traffic going southbound on I-55 could not exit and go to Cape. Traffic would have to use a different exit (William Street/Route K, East Main/LaSalle or Fruitland).

During the second stage, when Hwy. 61 is open for through traffic, traffic going north on I-55 would have to exit toward Cape and make a U-turn to get to Jackson, and traffic going southbound on I-55 would have to exit into Jackson and make a U-turn to get to Cape.

This plan is estimated to cost $15.8 to $16 million. Contractors could start construction as early as next March and phase 1 should be completed by Nov. 1, 2020.

Because Jackson and Cape officials had opposed the closing of Hwy. 61 for through traffic, MoDOT came up with a second option. This option keeps through traffic open throughout most of the construction period but closes the I-55 North on-ramp and I-55 South off-ramp (the ramps on the north side of Hwy. 61) closed for about eight months from March to Dec. 1, 2020.

In this option, traffic going west from Cape to Jackson on Hwy. 61 will be diverted near the cemetery onto the current eastbound passing lane of Hwy. 61. One lane will remain open in each direction with head-to-head traffic through the intersection.

This gives contractors room to work, and fill material from the north side of Hwy. 61 can be taken and used where needed without traffic being in the way. The new diverging diamond lanes will be constructed between the current east and west bound lanes of Hwy. 61.

This option is estimated to cost $16.5 million.

Jackson Mayor Dwain Hahs asked if there could be some incentive written into the contract to make the contractor want to open up the I-55 southbound ramp to Jackson earlier than eight months. Mark Shelton, MoDOT’s project engineer, said that could be done.

Cape Girardeau Mayor Bob Fox was concerned that during construction, this option doesn’t allow traffic to flow from the SportsPlex back to Cape Girardeau. All traffic from the SportsPlex will have to turn right and go into Jackson. He said there can be 500 cars at a sports event. Shelton said MoDOT will look at what can be done to fix that.

Mayor Hahs pleaded again for MoDOT to reconsider the original plan that kept all interstate accesses open and through traffic on Hwy. 61. He suggested that some costs would be cut by slightly changing the requirements (already being done in the other options) and if bids still came back higher, the difference may be offset by tax revenue that will not be lost by businesses along Hwy. 61, which will suffer under both of the new options.

This was rejected out of hand by Shelton, who said, “We are unable to go any further with the budget.”

Other changes to help lower the bids, include removing a requirement that contractors maintain the current southbound I-55 bridge throughout the construction period, the type of concrete mix to be used, and changing the time of construction from winter to summer, when prices for material are less.

When asked why MoDOT doesn’t just leave the interchange as is and re-deck the I-55 bridges, and possibly resurface Hwy. 61 under it (for an estimated cost of only $3.5 million), Jason Williams of MoDOT said doing so would keep two very long 600 foot bridges on I-55 that are “nonstandard.” Interstate bridges are now required to be 8 feet wider than these bridges. Resurfacing the bridges would add 30 years of life, but the substructure of those bridges is already more than 50 years old and is not “seismically designed.” There also is a limited vertical clearance for Hwy. 61 under I-55. The condition of these bridges is a “five” on a 10-point scale, he said.

The new bridges will be shorter (and therefore less expensive to maintain), and built to current standards. Also, the diverging diamond interchange under I-55 will be safer and more efficient for traffic flow when completed.

MoDOT will tweak the construction pans to see what can be done to open the I-55 southbound exit into Jackson sooner than eight months, and to allow SportsPlex traffic to go back into Cape Girardeau. MoDOT will report back at the Aug. 21 SEMPO meeting.