Even though it will be years before the Improve I-70 project comes to fruition, the Missouri Department of Transportation plans to make costly safety changes to sections of the corridor in mid-Missouri during the next year.
The transportation agency has two projects in the works in the central Missouri district. The first one, already under way, will replace 41,000 feet of damaged and outdated guardrails along a 70-mile stretch across Callaway, Boone and Cooper counties. A separate project, tentatively set for next summer, aims to prevent vehicles from crossing the center median by installing 37 miles of guard cables from eastern Columbia to Montgomery County.
The cost of the cables is estimated at $2.9 million; $2.7 million has been earmarked for the guardrails.
Despite the costs, interstate drivers pumping gas at the Lake of the Woods exit last week expressed mostly favorable reactions to the projects.
“You can’t put a value on life,” Larry Atterberry said. “If you can save just one life, it’s certainly worth it.”
But Laura Miller questioned the necessity of the projects and said she would probably be against spending the money.
“I just don’t think it’s necessary. It’s kind of like those toilets they’re putting in the Capitol building,” she said.
Eric Schroeter, operations engineer for the district, said the safety projects are seen as a priority.
“This is a safety improvement that affects a huge amount of traffic. So we see this as the right thing to do,” he said.
Schroeter described the guardrail project as a site-by-site treatment because only the guardrails that don’t meet current standards are
being replaced. He said that the rails are constantly being evaluated and that the new ones being installed have a design that better absorbs impact.
David Silvester, assistant state design engineer, cites a national highway research report as the reason for these new standards. The report includes test levels for vehicle weights, speeds and different angles of leaving the road.
Silvester said the biggest part of the project is upgrading 187 sections at the end of the guardrails with a next-generation design. Many of the end terminals in place are either a turndown style that starts at the ground and extends up into the rail or a style used in the early 1990s that flares out to the side. Silvester said the turndown style is not meant to take the impact of the vehicle, and the flare style does not meet current standards.
“What we need is a crash-worthy end terminal,” he said. The new device has a breakaway design to take a direct impact, catch the vehicle and slow it down without launching or rolling it, Silvester said. This breakaway design accommodates the lighter cars that are on the road today, he said. Ideally, the posts break at the ground and the railing folds up to absorb the energy of an impact.
The project also includes replacing sections that have been damaged and lengthening certain sections of guardrails where objects such as trees or rock bluffs pose a hazard for cars leaving the road.
“When you put in a new guardrail, it’s going to be a safer product with less maintenance,” Silvester said.
In addition, Silvester said spacers will be installed between the rails and posts to prevent vehicles from reacting to posts rather than the rails. If a wheel snags a post, Silvester said, it could cause the vehicle to roll or spin into traffic. The new rails are designed to redirect the vehicle along the road, not into traffic.
Because of the extent of guardrail replacement, Schroeter said, the work will not be finished until fall 2004.
The money for the project comes out of the department’s safety improvements fund. Department spokesman Jeff Briggs said Missouri received $11 million in federal money for the fund during the past fiscal year. For each project, 10 percent of the cost must come from the state.
The agency’s overall budget is $1.9 billion for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Funding for the guard cables comes from a separate funding source.
The cable project slated for next summer will string guard cables along the center median on I-70 to prevent median crossover accidents. District engineer Roger Schwartze estimated the cable project cost at $2.9 million, but there has been no bid yet, so that figure could change. Schwartze said the cables are something seen in urban areas around St. Louis and Kansas City but will be new to this part of the state.
Schroeter said the cables will connect to another project in the works in Montgomery County.
“We’re steadily doing most of the corridor as we get funding. It’s done on a case-by-case basis as we get the money,” he said.
The cables seem to be doing their job. Silvester said results have been favorable so far, with a decreasing number of accidents where cables have been installed.
Danny Zaugg of Boonville said he’s on I-70 every day and is glad the cables are being installed.
“When people fall asleep, the first thing that happens is they cross the median,” he said. “If we had something in the center it might stop them and save some lives.”