Yesterday's announcement that a deal has been reached to build a new bridge over the Mississippi river is big news for Missouri, Illinois, St. Clair County, and the City of St. Louis. The new bridge will relieve a lot of traffic congestion from the Poplar Street Bridge.
Drivers on Highway 70 travelling between Illinois and Missouri will no longer be required to drive through the depressed lanes through downtown St. Louis. Meanwhile, Interstate 64 drivers will still have direct access between Missouri and Illinois across the Poplar Street Bridge.
The rerouting of interstate traffic between Missouri and Illinois gives us the opportunity to revisit the purpose of the depressed lanes. Presently, they connect Interstate 70 drivers to the Poplar Street Bridge and connect Interstates 70/55 and 44 in Missouri through downtown St. Louis. Once the new bridge is built, the primary purpose for the depressed lanes will be to connect Highway 70 drivers to Interstates 55 and 44.
Downtown's connection to the riverfront and Arch grounds is negatively impacted by the depressed lanes. The depressed lanes are unsightly. They form a moat dividing downtown from it's greatest public resources, the Arch grounds and the riverfront. Hence, various plans have been discussed for years to improve the connection. None have yet been implemented.
The connection between our downtown and the Arch grounds/riverfront is not unlike Chicago's connection to Lake Michigan and San Francisco's connection to its waterfront. People are naturally drawn to water.
In Chicago, the interstate system terminates into Lakeshore drive. Parks and the lake are easily accessible throughout the length of downtown. Metered traffic signals and wide crosswalks create safe pedestrian access in the area. Now, as attractive as the Chicago lakefront already is, there is a movement on to further open up the area. Creating inviting public spaces in America's downtowns is a growing trend.
In San Francisco, the Loma Prieta Earthquake led to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway along the San Francisco waterfront. The Embarcadero Freeway was an elevated interstate delivering drivers from the Bay Bridge halfway around the waterfront to Fisherman's Wharf.
After the 1989 quake, the Embarcadero Freeway was removed and replaced with a surface level promenade roadway. Writers likened the change to having the "braces removed" from San Francisco's watefront. There is no comparison between the before and after conditions.
The Embarcadero Freeway was a loud, big, shadow casting structure dividing San Francisans from their waterfront. It's removal brought daylight, quiet, room for landscaping and other beautification. A trolley car line has been added to the mix.
Imagine if we could do something similar with our Memorial Drive? Filling in the depressed lanes and replacing them with an attractive, landscaped, surface level promenade, with wide sidewalks and signalized intersections. Does the new Mississippi Bridge make that possibility more feasible?
The main change would be for drivers connecting to points north and south through St. Louis City. The traffic on 55/44 and 70 would be transitioned onto a new Memorial Drive surface roadway past the Arch grounds and Laclede's Landing. It would add a few minutes to the drive. Some people would oppose the change. However, with all the hype leading up to the Highway 40 closure, we have a good example, "right here in St. Louis", of how well drivers adapt to changing traffic patterns.
What do you think? Would it be worth a few extra minutes' drive through downtown (with a much improved view of the Arch) to improve downtown's connection between the riverfront and the Arch grounds?