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Safety of state 'lettered' routes in Cole County questioned

MoDOT: Funding unavailable to improve state-maintained roads in county


Now that school is back in session at both Wardsville schools (Blair Oaks and St. Stanislaus), traffic is plentiful at the intersection of routes B, M and W. More than a decade ago, Chamber of Commerce officials ask MoDOT to make Route B a priority, but a lack of funding has left the road with no improvements.

Now that school is back in session at both Wardsville schools (Blair Oaks and St. Stanislaus), traffic is plentiful at the intersection of routes B, M and W. More than a decade ago, Chamber of Commerce officials ask MoDOT to make Route B a priority, but a lack of funding has left the road with no improvements. Photo by Julie Smith.

Two head-on collisions in eight days has renewed some Mid-Missourians’ concerns about the safety of state Route B.

The Aug. 8 accident — at 5:35 p.m. at the north end of St. Thomas — killed three Meta residents riding in a car that crossed the center line into the path of a truck hauling dog food from the Diamond Pet Foods plant in Meta.

Last Thursday’s accident — at 8 a.m., 1.5 miles south of the Tanner Bridge Spur — critically injured a Meta man whose car collided with a van that turned left in front of him.

More than a decade ago, the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce told the state Highways and Transportation Commission that improving the road was a high priority safety issue.

But because of funding issues, MoDOT officials say they have no plans or money to improve the highway.

At 17.95 miles, Route B is the longest state-maintained “lettered” road in Cole County.

And next to Route C, it’s the busiest, according to state Transportation department traffic counts taken every three years.

Last year, that count showed nearly 2,700 vehicles on Route B, going through the intersection with Routes M and W in Wardsville each day, while another 1,500-plus vehicles went through the same intersection from Route W — and almost 1,000 entered the intersection from Route M.

Farther south, those numbers show, Route B carries 2,450 vehicles each day at the Route E intersection, and about the same number even farther south, crossing the Osage River bridge between Osage Bluff and St. Thomas.

Especially in the Wardsville area, Route B serves an expanding residential region, and more people are wondering when the road might be improved.

The traffic counts show that Route C carries more traffic — 4,130 vehicles daily at the Route D intersection near Lohman, and almost 3,700 vehicles each day at the Route U intersection just east of Russellville.

But Route C has been improved over the years — relocated and widened, with shoulders added — from Jefferson City to Russellville, while Route B has been improved only from Jefferson City to Wardsville, with some bridge repairs and renovations done between Wardsville and Meta.

In 2001, the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce included improvements to Route B in its wish-list of area road improvements.

Mike Bates, Jefferson City’s former Public Works director, made the chamber’s presentation on April 6, 2001, asking the Highways and Transportation Commission to improve Route B from Wardsville to Meta, adding shoulders, straightening some of the curves and leveling some of the hills on the winding two-lane highway.

“We believe this is a very high priority safety project,” Bates said then, noting the improvements were needed largely because of the success of Meta’s Diamond Pet Foods, and the increasing number of trucks traveling over Route B to Jefferson City and the major highway system.

More than a decade after that request, MoDOT still has no plans — and no money — to work on Route B.

“There are many road improvements needed throughout the state,” MoDOT spokeswoman Sally Oxenhandler said. “We certainly are able to give higher consideration to projects where a local entity has agreed to share a portion of the cost.

“In recent years, we have seen an increase in the number of cost-share projects we perform, and we appreciate and welcome the support of local communities in our effort to improve the state’s transportation system.”

Cole County Public Works Director Larry Benz said county officials haven’t discussed the option of using some of the half-cent transportation sales tax to help MoDOT pay for Route B improvements.

Both Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle and Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said last week they’re willing to discuss the option.

“I do have some concerns that the other rural routes are just as bad — (like) Route D (and) Route H,” Scheperle said. “Where do you draw that line?

“If Route B’s that much more traveled, I would say it would weigh more heavily.”

The state maintains just more than 126 miles of lettered roads in Cole County.

Route T, which runs 4.5 miles from U.S. 50 north through Elston to Missouri 179, and Route M in Taos both carry more traffic than Route B, according to the MoDOT statistics.

Almost 2,900 vehicles take Route T through the Business 50 West intersection between Apache Flats and St. Martins, just north of the expressway. That number drops to just under 2,800 at the Missouri 179 intersection, northwest of Jefferson City.

And 2,700 vehicles a day travel on Route M through the Route Y intersection in Taos.

Hoelscher agreed with Scheperle: “We definitely could look at doing some kind of cost-share. (But) if you keep going south, past Meta and out of Cole County, the roads are even curvier and more dangerous.

“I think people just need to be smarter — stay off your darned phones and just be smarter drivers.”

Trent Brooks, MoDOT’s Central District traffic engineer, said the department uses the traffic counts to help make a lot of decisions, “(which) can vary from what sort of surface treatment we do on the road — whether we do an asphalt overlay or we do a chip-seal — to whether or not a road would get an edge-line stripe.”

Knowing how many people use a particular road helps determine how quickly that road may get a snow plow in winter storms, Brooks said.

The numbers MoDOT has for the last dozen years show some fluctuation in traffic use, with many of the most recent traffic volumes lower than the readings from three years earlier.

“Generally, it’s probably related to the economy, as much as anything,” Brooks said. “Some of those years you have were before the 2008 ‘bubble,’ and so, as a whole, you had a few years there where traffic volume was down a little bit.

“Overall, our volumes are pretty well flat over the last seven to 10 years (and) seem to be heading up again as the economy seems to be getting better.”

That’s one of the reasons counts are taken every three years, he said, “because typically, year-to-year, there’s not huge changes.”

Some minor changes in traffic numbers could be caused by development, with additional local roads carrying traffic around the place where the state’s traffic counting was done.

Traffic controls also may be an issue.

Only stop signs control the traffic movement through the B/M/W intersection in Wardsville, and several others around the county.

By contrast, electric signals control traffic movements at state road intersections with city streets, inside Jefferson City — such as Route C and Southwest Boulevard or Route B and Lorenzo Greene Drive/Tanner Bridge Road.

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