Local leaders, MoDOT discuss split on Route 54 project

Jason Leubbering with Cole County Industries, State Representative Dave Griffith, and North Jefferson City resident Sharon Anderson discuss MoDOT's proposed changes to US 54 north of the bridge Tuesday at Jefferson City Hall. (Ken Barnes/News Tribune)

Local government officials and residents were not pleased with Route 54 plans presented by the Missouri Department of Transportation in a public meeting Tuesday evening at Jefferson City Hall.

The project, aimed at reducing traffic congestion along Route 54 between the Missouri River Bridge and the U.S. Route 63 interchange, would close the Route W (Airport Road) ramp to Route 54, with two of the three proposals calling for construction of a new ramp. The other option would eliminate the ramp entirely.

The Jefferson City Council is completely opposed to the plan that calls for the elimination of the Route W ramp, and passed a resolution stating such in November.

State, county and city leaders reiterated that sentiment in small conversations Tuesday with help from local farmers and business owners.

Ron Fitzwater, chair of the City Council's public works and planning committee and the city's only mayoral candidate, said he was glad to see people engaging with the process Tuesday.

"I think everybody is here because they have concerns about the Route W ramp," he said. "I just think MoDOT needs to figure out something. There's got to be a way that we can work this out for the community because it just doesn't work the way they're proposing it."

MoDOT sees it differently.

"The goal here was to add a third lane in each direction and what we're presenting here provides that," MoDOT Project Manager James Beattie said. "At this time, one of these three options would be one that we would go with."

Proposed plans

Beattie said the need to expand the number of lanes on Route 54 was identified years ago and the project moved forward as funding became available.

Starting in 2024, MoDOT plans to widen the portion of Route 54 between the Missouri River bridge and Route 63/Route 94 clover interchange to six lanes, with three lanes in each direction. The eastbound side of the bridge (traveling out of the city) will get a fourth lane after restriping.

Additionally, the project calls for rehabilitation of the Route W (Airport Road/Cedar City Drive) bridge over Route 54 and rehabilitation of the interchange bridges at Routes 63 and 94.

Approximately 56,000 drivers utilize the highway between Main Street and Route 63 daily, according to MoDOT.

With MoDOT able to restripe the eastbound lanes of the bridge, motorists will have dedicated lanes to exit onto Airport Road and Route 63. The process isn't so simple on the westbound side, where the bridge isn't wide enough for four lanes.

Randy Aulbur, MoDOT's assistant Central District engineer, told the News Tribune last month the department is trying to determine the best way to create a dedicated lane for drivers exiting Route 63 onto Route 54. Currently, the ramp meets two lanes of Route 54 and becomes the on-ramp for Route W.

The first option under consideration would completely eliminate the westbound ramp from Route W to Route 54, significantly extending the travel path from Jefferson City Memorial Airport to the rest of the city. Drivers would be forced up Hibernia Road/Wehmeyer Drive to Route 94 or up Cedar City Drive/Renz Farm Road to Highway 63. Routes 94 and 63 would get acceleration and deceleration lanes.

According to MoDOT, the $4.5 million option won't impact access to the Katy Trail or North Jefferson City Recreation Area.

The second proposal would remove the westbound ramp from Route W and replace it with a new ramp utilizing Fourth Street. The second option, totaling more than $4.7 million, would have some impact on access to the Katy Trail and North Jefferson City Recreation Area, according to MoDOT, as traffic would increase on Fourth Street.

The final option would close the westbound ramp from Route W and add an entirely new loop ramp with a right-hand entrance before Fourth Street. Beattie said the loop ramp is more closely aligned to the kind of exits MoDOT regularly builds.

According to MoDOT, the third, and most expensive option at nearly $5 million, would cause the greatest impact to accessing the Katy Trail and North Jefferson City Recreation Area because the proposed location for the new loop ramp would require moving several elements, such as the playground and basketball courts.

Maps of the three configurations can be accessed online at modot.org/JeffersonCity54.

Depending on the volume of traffic, Beattie said options two and three could interrupt the free flow of traffic MoDOT is seeking to create. But, he said, the department's models show traffic flowing well, even with the large commercial vehicles that will be utilizing it.

Local Response to Proposals

MoDOT Central District Engineer Machelle Watkins said the department doesn't have a preferred plan, but feedback from the public meeting will help narrow it down.

Each has its own challenges, she said.

Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, compared MoDOT's first option to "poking people in the eye" with the amount of frustration it would cause.

Ward 2 City Councilman Mike Lester, who represents the area, said option one is a "non-starter" because it works against the businesses and facilities around Cedar City and the airport.

Lester said he preferred option three because merging looked more dangerous under option two. Option three provides more space for those exiting Routes W and 63 to merge into the same lane.

Lester said Capital Sand has more than 40 trucks traveling those roadways each day and an extra mile of travel would raise expenses for businesses in the area. He said people have also pointed out that emergency medical flights will take extra time.

Cole County Commissioner Harry Otto said he knew Tuesday that option one was out of the question.

"It's pretty inconvenient," he said. "I would say option two or three has more appeal to me, but I'm not an engineer."

Otto said he's heard concerns from the airport, farmers and business owners in the area, but added the work will largely impact Callaway County.

Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, said he's in favor of option three because Fourth Street is too old and further away than option two. He said he expects the area to continue to develop as well.

"Time is worth something to our society and safety is worth something to our society," he said.

"We have to have some type of in and off access in that area," he continued.

The resolution passed in November was intended to express support for keeping the ramp open and maintaining access from Route W to Jefferson City, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin told the News Tribune in December.

"We realize just how important having clear and efficient access to the Capital City is for our continued growth and maintaining economic impacts for several businesses," she said.

According to MoDOT's traffic volume map, an average of 1,042 drivers utilized Cedar City Drive daily in 2021. That number grew to around 1,105 on weekdays.

Beattie said MoDOT will use public feedback to inform decision-making and address concerns.

A fourth consideration

Callaway County Commissioner Roger Fischer said MoDOT did a good job of creating options, but he wasn't happy with any of them.

Fischer suggested the state return to the drawing board to keep the Route W ramp and extend that lane to the superstructure around the Missouri River bridge. That would create more lanes on westbound Route 54 until the bridge, where lanes would be reduced to three.

"The cost difference between the options that we see here and to fix the bridge correctly is not a lot," he said. "We have one time in our lifetime to do this correctly and I want to do it one time correctly."

Roger said MoDOT should move forward with the eastbound portion and do more research on the westbound side.

"Do half this job now and do the other half when we can get it right," he said.

"This is the Capital of the state of Missouri," he continued. "We should be able to do a bridge -- the only bridge north and south out of the capital of the state of Missouri. If we can't afford to fix this correctly, how can we think we're going to do anything else right?"

Danny Baumgartner, owner of the Capital Bluffs Event Center, also said he didn't like any of the proposals in the room Tuesday. He and a few other landowners in the area cross the bridge every day and don't see a traffic congestion issue, he said.

"We don't know what the issue is except for I think some of the commuters in Columbia are complaining," he said.

More than 17,000 vehicles a day travel to Jefferson City on Route 54 and another roughly 10,000 merge from Route 63, Watkins said.

Jay Fischer, owner of Fischer Farms, said he's not opposed to the third lane on Route 54 but he doesn't want to see the Route W ramp closed.

He suggested the same plan as the Callaway County commissioner.

"That would be our preferred solution," Jay Fischer said, adding it would likely cost more, but the cost would be worth it. "It would actually be peanuts if you divided that out over 30 years."

Out of the three options in the room Tuesday, the local landowners said they were partial to option three.

Lester, the city councilman, also said he would prefer MoDOT leave the westbound side alone or extend a lane from the Route W exit to the superstructure of the bridge.

"That would serve the needs of citizens and what they're trying to achieve, and achieve that the best," Lester said.

Jay Fischer and Baumgartner said they've voiced support for that plan in several meetings with MoDOT but "it seems to fall on deaf ears."

Watkins said the locally favored idea was one MoDOT considered in early planning stages but it "would have way more than doubled the cost of the project" and that cost was "far more" than the department had in the budget.

"It's really not a viable option at this time," she said.

Beattie said MoDOT can't expand the three lanes going across the bridge and to widen or replace the bridge would be "a cost that's not within the budget for this particular project."

Ron Fitzwater said the cost differential between what MoDOT is proposing and what locals are advocating for isn't a lot for a project that will impact decades of travel.

"I know they've gotten the message," he said. "You've got four legislators here that are affected in that area. Hopefully they'll get it, but we've got to re-design it."

Watkins said she's heard concerns from business owners about the removal of the Route W ramp but she's also heard excitement about less congestion and more reliability on Route 54.

In addition to the public meeting Tuesday, MoDOT is collecting public comments online through Jan. 20 at modot.org/JeffersonCity54.

The work will require lane shifts and temporary lane closures and narrowing. Route 54 will remain open throughout the duration of the project while the Route W interchange will close for the bridge rehabilitation work. The Route 54/63/94 interchange will remain open throughout bridge rehabilitation work as well.

MoDOT is expecting to award the project contract in December 2023 and begin work in the spring of 2024.

  photo  Jason Branstetter of Capital Sand Company discusses MoDOT's proposed changes to Highway 54 north of the bridge with MoDOT Central District Engineer Machelle Watkins Tuesday at Jefferson City Hall. (Ken Barnes/News Tribune)
  photo  2nd Ward Councilman Mike Lester, Capital Bluffs owner Andy Baumgartner, and State Representatives Dave Griffith and Rudy Veit discuss MoDOT's proposed changes to US 54 north of the bridge Tuesday at Jefferson City Hall. (Ken Barnes/News Tribune)
  photo  Citizens and business owners discuss the proposed improvements to Highway 54 north of the bridge with MoDOT designers and engineers Tuesday evening at Jefferson City Hall. (Ken Barnes/News Tribune)