COLUMBIA — The latest step in northern Columbia’s road to development opened Monday, and it includes four lanes, a raised median and pedways on either side.
The Missouri Department of Transportation held the ribbon cutting for the $13.9 million Range Line Street project on Monday. The widening of 2.3 miles of Range Line, also known as Highway 763, between Big Bear Boulevard and Route VV from two to four lanes will improve access to the northern part of the city, easing traffic congestion and better positioning the area for commercial development.
Held in the bitter cold, the ceremony came just weeks after the opening of the Providence Road extension, another project that officials say will bring similar benefits to north Columbia.
"Between this project and the Providence extension, we've had a major impact on accessibility for people on the north side of Columbia," Mayor Darwin Hindman said at the ceremony.
In addition to the wider road, median and pedways; the project also includes a roundabout at Route VV and Prathersville Road, sidewalks on both sides, four new signal lights and the replacement of gravel driveways with cement.
Originally, construction was going to happen in two phases, but the city put up $2.2 million in advance to ensure both the northern and southern sections of the strip would be widened at the same time, Roger Schwartze, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said at the ribbon cutting. The city wanted the entire project completed simultaneously because the two-lane highway was inadequate for all the development in the area, Public Works Director John Glascock said.
MoDOT will reimburse the city for $1.2 million of the up-front payment. The city also spent $938,000 to replace and relocate utility lines.
Lehman Construction of California, Mo., was the contractor. The project’s original completion date was Aug. 1. Lehman was given an extension because utilities on both sides of the road needed to be replaced, said Charles Sullivan, a resident engineer with MoDOT who oversaw the project.
Traffic counts over the past 12 years show a pattern of an increasingly busy Highway 763 south of Big Bear Boulevard. Between 2003 and 2006, there was an 8.8 percent increase, with the number of average daily trips rising from 23,002 to 25,026. The most recent count, taken during construction, showed traffic on the highway had dipped to 17,902 trips per day.
The project originally was projected to cost $19.7 million, but landowners helped keep the cost down by donating rights-of-way, and Glascock said the city worked with engineers to design the road with a narrower footprint. Range Line’s shoulders, for example, are seven feet wide. By contrast, the shoulders on Grindstone Parkway are 10 feet wide.
Both Range Line Street and Providence Road are within the jurisdiction of Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill. He said both projects should provide better access for emergency and public safety officials and generally are safer roadways.
"The road is what is needed to entice commercial development for people who live in that area, but given the economic time that's not likely to happen anytime soon," Thornhill said.
One site ripe for development is the 40-acre tract at Range Line Street and Blue Ridge Road. Rampart Development of Columbia bought the land a few years ago and had it rezoned to accommodate commercial development. The land has been cleared, and significant dirt work has been done.
"We see the Range Line and Providence corridor as the main entry way to the north side of Columbia, and we bet on that fact," David Atkins of Rampart said.
Atkins said the company’s investment has yet to pay off. Although buyers are interested in the site, the recession has delayed progress.
"It has been the state of the economy,” Atkins said. “I'm hesitant to blame anything on the recession. However, the banking and real estate crisis are real, and they're really affecting developments such as this one."
Atkins said the property will be an attractive area for buyers once the economy recovers and credit becomes more liquid.
"It really is a matter of time; we've got the traffic and roof count,” Atkins said, referring to the number of houses in the area. “It's definitely the right site. It's just going to take a few more years."
Despite improved access, many businesses along the road have not seen a dramatic increase in customers. Owners and employees said one reason could be that the four lanes opened so recently that commuters who have become accustomed to alternate routes since construction began in April 2008 have not switched back to using Range Line.
"A lot of people take alternate routes, and some people still don't know it's opened yet," said Kenny Falls, manager at the Moser’s Discount Food, a grocery store just north of the intersection of Smiley Lane and Range Line Street. "It hasn't increased business. You'd think it would have, but it's just improved access so far."
Damon Turley, owner of the 5th Down bar and grill, said he’s seen a slight increase in business since roadworks' completion. He thinks patronage might increase even more once residents of northern Columbia, who were taking alternate routes to avoid the construction, get used to using the route that runs past his store.
"I think it has started to pick up, but I think it will continue to improve once they get used to going this way," Turley said.
Employees of the Casey’s General Store, at the intersection of Big Bear Boulevard and Range Line, said they are seeing the effects. General manager Chanette Hill said she has seen more business since the portion of Range Line in front of the store reopened a few months ago. She thinks the extension of Providence Road also is helping.
"The traffic isn't so congested. When it was really congested people would try to find other routes, " Hill said. "Business has gotten busier, and traffic isn't so heavy."
Some who drive Range Line regularly are pleased with the new highway. Mike Halliburton, who moved just north of the roundabout six months ago, attended the ribbon cutting on Monday.
"This road is one of the reasons I moved out here. That and cheaper rent," he said. "I think they did a great job. I'm really impressed."
Sherri Kawley, a general assistant at Vanderveen Dental Center, said the wider highway and new turn lanes make her commute home much easier.
"It's been awesome for me to get home, it cuts off about 8 minutes,” Kawley said. “I zip into the turn lane, and I'm done."