For over 40 years I-70 has been a major barrier dividing downtown St. Louis from the the Mississippi River.Â Isolating Laclede’s Landing.Â Hovering over the Missouri side as you exit the historic Eads Bridge:
At the Gateway Arch the freeway dips into what us known as the “depressed lanes.”Â Depressing indeed. For years now the political establishment has been talking about the idea of a lid over the sunken highway lanes.Â Sounds simple enough, just put a lid over the top.
The problem is, “lid” is the wrong word.Â The correct word is tunnel.Â A lid implies you might use a crane to set it in place just as the final piece of the adjacent Arch was set.Â But for our officials to keep saying lid is misleading.Â They want to put the highway into a new tunnel.
The Highway 67/Lindbergh tunnel under the extended runways at Lambert Airport is probably the closest example to what will be required next to the Arch.Â Hardly a lid.Â The ventilation and security requirements of this tunnel contributed to the billion dollar runway price tag.Â Ouch.
The extensive tunneling required for the latest MetroLink expansion drove up the price tag for that project.Â Face it, tunnels are expensive.Â In many cases, too expensive.
I can’t help but think of the biggest of the big in terms of tunnel projects:
The Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in the U.S. Although the project was estimated in 1985 at $2.8 billion (in 1982 dollars, US$6.0 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2006), over $14.6 billion ($8.08 billion in 1982 dollars) had been spent in federal and state tax dollars as of 2006. A July 17, 2008 article in [update][update]The Boston Globe stated, “In all, the project will cost an additional $7 billion in interest, bringing the total to a staggering $22 billion, according to a Globe review of hundreds of pages of state documents. It will not be paid off until 2038.”Â (Source: Wikipedia)
Estimates of under $3 billion but ending up over $22 billion.Â Our tunnel will not have the complexity of Boston’s Big Dig but I think that project serves as a lesson for cost overruns and delays to completion.Â Our own Cross County Metrolink expansion is a local lesson on costs and completion deadlines.
At least in Boston the Big Dig addressed how their Central Artery freeway had divided their city.
Above is one of many points where the former elevated freeway divided Boston.Â Their expensive tunnel resolved the division issues not for a mere 3 blocks but for more than a mile.
But in St. Louis our tunnel would resolve access to the Arch grounds at the center only.Â My solution, first advanced in August 2005, is to remove the freeway lanes once I-70 is routed across the new river bridge currently being planned:
So imagine the existing I-70 removed from the PSB to the new bridge (North of Laclede’s Landing & the proposed Bottle District). In its place a wide and grand boulevard lined with trees and shops. The adjacent street grid is reconnected at every block. Pedestrians can easily cross the boulevard not only at the Arch but anywhere along the distance between the bridges. Eads Bridge and the King Bridge both land cars onto the boulevard and into then dispersed into the street grid. The money it would take to cover I-70 for 3 blocks in front of the Arch can go much further not trying to cover an interstate highway. Joining the riverfront and Laclede’s Landing to the rest of downtown will naturally draw people down Washington Avenue to the riverfront.
In one bold decision we can take back our connection to the river that shaped our city. The decision must be made now. The interchange for the new bridge is being designed now — we’ve only got one chance to get it right. Similarly, the lid project in front of the Arch could shift to a removed I-70 and connecting boulevard design before we are too far along the current path.
We are at a crossroads at this point with three major projects involving billions of dollars and affecting St. Louis for at least the next half century. Removing I-70 would, in twenty years, be seen as a pivotal decision. Will our government leaders have the courage to make such a decision?
In the four years since I wrote those words more people agree.Â Some are banding together to sell the concept to the region, moving the idea forward.Â Property owners along this section of interstate that will no longer be I-70 favor the idea.Â The problem is our leadership is still stuck on the costly lid concept.Â They want to address 3 blocks rather than 30 blocks — for 10 times the cost.Â Sounds about like St. Louis’ leadership.
The problem is they have….well…tunnel vision.Â They see only a problem at the center of the Arch whereas most of us see the access problem along the length of the highway as it slices through downtown. Examples of problems that will not be addressed by a tunnel:
We can fix all of the above with a tree-lined boulevard.Â Remember, this 1.5 mile stretch will no longer be I-70.Â Those drivers using these lanes as a pass through can still use the boulevard to get North-South.Â The choice is simple, repair a large portion of the downtown and near North side where it has been divided by a 1.5 mile long stretch of highway or focus on 3 blocks for at least twice the price.Â The solution is a no-brainer to me.
The first thing we must do is get our officials to stop insulting our intelligence with the overly simplistic “lid” idea.Â The highway is not a Tupperware container that you can just close up with a simple snap-on lid.Â Even if the price tag were the same, the boulevard concept reconnects much more of the city — 1.5 miles vs. 3 blocks.
Unfortunately our officials are all talking the same 3 block tunnel.Â Many have a say from the Mayor to MoDOT to the National Park Service.Â Getting them to be open to other, more encompassing, solutions will be challenging.
Take this week’s poll in the right sidebar to vote on how to reconnect the city to the river.
– Steve Patterson