COLUMBIA — U.S. 63 south of Columbia is taking on a different look and will soon require different driving habits.
Within the next 15 months, the 24,100 drivers who use U.S. 63 between Jefferson City and Columbia each day will see changes beyond the new interchange being built at the Route H turnoff to Columbia Regional Airport.
So far, drivers have already seen the beginnings of the $9.8 million project. Trees and other foliage are being cut down and cleared in the median along a four-mile stretch north of Route H. This clearing signals significant modifications, including:
- The existing southbound lanes on U.S. 63 will become a permanent outer road that provides an entrance to the new portion of the highway at the Discovery Ridge interchange, just south of Columbia, and at the new Route H interchange at the airport exit.
- The 200- to 300-foot-wide median separating the northbound and southbound lanes will be reduced to about 60 feet along the four-mile stretch, and a guard rail will be installed.
- Crossovers between these lanes will be eliminated at Old Millers Road, South Rolling Hills Road, Missouri 163, Deer Park Road, an unnamed crossover south of Deer Park and a final crossover at Route H.
- Instead of the crossovers, plans call for building four J-turns — two for each direction — along this stretch for motorists to cross the highway and go the opposite direction.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has posted a YouTube video that shows how J-turns work.
These turns, according to the Department of Transportation website, allow for drivers to enter the highway and merge left into a 700- to 800-foot turn lane. Drivers then pull into the flow of traffic, making a U-turn to change the direction they're going.
J-turns are designed to help eliminate damaging right-angle or T-bone accidents, but transportation officials said the onus remains on the driver to make smart, safe decisions while pulling into oncoming traffic in a 70 mph speed zone.
"With enough traffic, the potential for a crash is always there," said John Miller, a Missouri Department of Transportation traffic safety engineer. "But I'd rather get hit in the rear of my car than in the door."
Drivers will still need to safely gauge the breaks in oncoming traffic, but Miller hopes the J-turns will make it safer for drivers to make those decisions.
"The J-turns are there to help drivers who don't judge gaps well by providing improved access points," Miller said.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, J-Turns reduce conflict points, spots where the paths of two vehicles diverge, merge or cross. A study on J-turn effectiveness conducted in North Carolina found the turns reduced fatal/injury crash rates by 51 percent.
In Missouri, J-turns are located on Route M in Jefferson County, Missouri 13 in McDonald County and the newly constructed section of U.S. 65.
Relocating places for motorists to cross the highway, however, means access points to some of the small businesses along the stretch will be changed.
Richard Bell, an employee of the Deer Park Break Time, is concerned about losing business at the convenience store, as it will be situated about a half mile before the nearest J-turn.
Some commuters don't think it will be worth stopping there anymore.
"I won't stop at that Break Time unless I'm in dire need of gas," said Scott Evans, an attorney in Jefferson City who commutes from Columbia. "No one will. If I need gas, and I'm heading south, I'll go to Ashland."
John Carruthers, another commuter, shared Evans' feelings.
"I go to Break Time two or three times a week for breakfast, but I probably won't go as much after the construction," Carruthers said.
Miller, the traffic safety engineer, said he doesn't think the construction will have an effect on the business.
"It won't be restricting the drivers from accessing Break Time," Miller said. "They'll just have to change their routines a little bit."
During construction of the J-turns next summer, plans call for a northbound lane closure and speed reductions.
Most construction will occur at night though, said Kirsten Munck, who works for the department.