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Missouri project will slow business traffic

Interstate 64 sign

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Kai Ryssdal: You could call it Missouri's "Big Dig"— just without the tunnels and the multibillion-dollar cost over-runs that Boston had.

Missouri's Department of Transportation is spending half a billion dollars to rip up and completely rebuild a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 64. The project, through the heart of the St. Louis metropolitan region, started a couple of months ago.

The big mess, though, won't come 'til next year — when both directions of the highway will be closed down for two years. Businesses along the I-64 corridor aren't exactly sure what that might mean for them, but they're not waiting around to find out. Tom Weber from KWMU in St. Louis reports.


Tom Weber: Bunne Salzman's new clothing boutique is booming, both financially and musically. She opened the store seven months ago in her hometown of Chesterfield, a St. Louis suburb along I-64 about eight miles west of the big construction zone.

But Salzman recently closed another store because it stood in the heart of the big rebuild.

Bunne Salzman: I think for the larger stores, the chains and things like that, they could survive the, you know, interruptions. For a small store like we were, it would have totally hurt us.

Plus, she expected her commute to go from 30 minutes to two hours a day.

But Bunne Salzman is an exception to the rule — at least for now. Most businesses are not changing too much in anticipation of next year's shutdown, and there have been no big studies of what the economic impact might be.

Still, there is some preparing to do. Work has already started to rebuild this interchange at Kingshighway

, where Barnes-Jewish Hospital is located. Twenty thousand people work here, and they need to get to the hospital to help the more than 1 million patients who show up each year.

Hospital spokewoman June Fowler is part of the effort to get the word out that Barnes-Jewish will stay open.

June Fowler: We've put in web-based tools, telephone tools, letters and postcards that we're going to be sending to patients. We're expanding Saturday hours for some of our clinics so that our patients can still easily access us.

Local and state governments are throwing out other options for all businesses. They're pushing public transit and suggesting worker shifts be changed to spread out just who's on the road when.

Still, just the cost makes this the most expensive construction project ever in Missouri. And St. Louis residents have never really experienced anything like it.

The decision to shut down the highway came from the company that won the bidding for the project. Gateway Constructors told the state the reconstruction would take forever if part of the highway were kept open.

Gateway spokesman Dan Galvin:

Dan Galvin: We looked at maintaining two lanes of traffic in each direction while we did the expansion. And what we've determined was that that would have taken six years.

Galvin then uses the old "ripping off the band-aid" analogy to make his point that two years of total shutdown really is a better option.

The state is also giving a million dollars to businesses and communities along the highway to help them with ad campaigns and other efforts to let people know about alternate routes. And who knows? Maybe all the hub-bub is for naught.

Mike Finan seems to think so. He owns two stores in downtown St. Louis that sell all things trendy and chic.

Mike Finan: People are going to find their way downtown. It's a major city. There are more than one access points. St. Louisans have a knack for finding a way around traffic.

This is where you'd use the "traffic is like water" analogy — that it eventually redistributes itself once detoured.

And in that respect, Finan might be on to something. The St. Louis shutdown is a bigger version of a highway closing in Detroit. That's where seven miles of Detroit's Lodge Freeway are being rebuilt this summer.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation says the first week of the shutdown there was brutal, but drivers gradually shifted their commutes and found a better way to avoid the highway with help from a state campaign called "Dodge the Lodge."

For Marketplace, I'm Tom Weber in St. Louis.

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