COLUMBIA — Deer Park Break Time is located on a busy stretch of U.S. 63 and serves a customer base as diverse as the 24,100 drivers who travel on U.S. 63 between Jefferson City and Columbia each day.
Farmers, construction workers and Jefferson City commuters file in each morning for greasy breakfast sandwiches, coffee and conversation. They talk among themselves about the weather, politics and business.
Lately, one topic dominates discussion at the restaurant: the new J-turns right outside.
"I’d say that, generally, all of the locals are unhappy about it," store manager Dale Magruder said. "It’s more of a hassle for them to get home or get where it is they need to be, including here."
The J-turns, which opened Aug. 29, were installed to decrease the number of fatal and serious accidents caused by the previous cross-over intersections. They provide a separate lane that drivers can use without entering the actual highway to gain speed and merge with traffic, preventing the dangerous T-bone accidents that were more common with crossover intersections. The U.S. 63 J-turns are some of the 11 J-turns in the state.
The change was meant to make drivers safer, but some say it has made turning more inconvenient.
"I hate them," Break Time customer Jerry Santoyo said. "You still have to yield, you still have to look before you go into traffic, it’s just harder to do it. I have a truck, and it’s hard to see."
Magruder said that although the J-turns have made it more inconvenient for some drivers to reach the Break Time, he hasn't seen any effect on his business. "The customers aren’t exactly 100 percent happy about it, but my business hasn’t dropped off so far," he said.
Nicole Hood, who managed the project, said the Missouri Department of Transportation made a large effort to gauge public opinion before moving forward with the construction.
"We had public meetings during the design of the project, and we received comments regarding the locations of the J-turns," she said. "We made some changes in the design based on feedback."
Jim Morris, who has been driving this stretch of road for more than three years, called the J-turns "an absolute joke" that "messed up more than they fixed. Whoever thought of it needs their head examined."
MoDOT Engineer Patty Lemongelli said she understands the backlash about inconvenience, but she feels as drivers learn to better maneuver vehicles through the J-turns, they will come to like them. To that end, MoDOT has included a video on its website detailing how to make a J-turn.
"I think it’s probably fair to say there’s a learning curve with adjustments of drivers, but we feel like they are working," she said.
Penny Harrington, a clerk at Break Time who has lived in the area her entire life, said she has heard mostly negative comments about the new turns.
"Semi drivers hate 'em; our vendors hate 'em," she said. "Big vehicles have a really hard time turning around them. And their next place to turn around would be down by the rest area."
Bruce Noble, who farms in the area, also cited problems with taking larger vehicles through the turns.
"You cannot take a truck and a trailer though one of those J-turns," he said. "It just won't clear the turn."
He also said some local farmers who have property on both sides of the highway have to drive much farther to do work on either side.
The commentary isn't all negative, however; some drivers concede that the turns will help prevent accidents, but are still unhappy with the change.
"I think that while they are safer because you won’t die if you have a wreck, you’re still going to have wrecks," customer Travis Teserau said.
Harrington said she thinks lack of education is the biggest hurdle in transitioning to the new interchange.
"The big problem about the J-turns is that not everyone is informed about them so they’re stopping at them instead of just merging right on," she said. "So they’re not using them for what they’re supposed to use them for."
Hood said it is not meant to be a fix-all, but she believes it is making U.S. 63 safer.
"Drivers are still going to have to be smart and make safe decisions," she said. "The J-turns don’t eliminate all crashes, but they reduce the severity of crashes."
Lemongelli said it is important to keep in mind that the entire construction project on U.S. 63 will not be finished until mid-November, and that when it is done, outer lanes will make J-turns less necessary. In the meantime, she thinks the benefits outweigh the problems.
"Some people feel it's an inconvenience for them because they’re driving out of the way," Lemongelli said. "But these are safer. I’d rather have people be inconvenienced but be overall safer."