Lessons Learned from Highway 40

The very first assignment I had in my very first policy wonk job was to fill out a survey for my boss.  It was from the Missouri Department of Transportation and it was about completely rebuilding Highway 40.  That was in September 1996.  As I recall, I totally trashed the beloved road in the survey.  It moved traffic slowly, the exit ramps were dangerously curved, and it was a road designed for a different era of driving.  I recall my boss asking me to tone down a few parts of my commentary, but overall she liked what I wrote.  Hard to believe, but MODOT and the contractors began laying the groundwork for this project more than ten years before a single shovel of dirt was moved. What impressed me most about the reconstruction project was the decision to close it down.  Closing the highway meant faster construction and lower cost.  It inconvenienced many people.  Some businesses saw declines in customer traffic.  Individual property owners had to put up with some nasty conditions for a long time.  We survived, though.  We found new ways to work.  We found new routes to get to familiar places.  We were tolerant of lane changes and crowded intersections . . . and it paid off!  In the end, the project was completed ahead of schedule and on-budget, and we have a nice piece of infrastructure that will serve the region for generations. There is a lesson for public officials here.  Planning counts.  Most politicians can’t see beyond the next election, and it’s very difficult to keep a project focused for a ten-year timeline.  If we want to have a great region, then we must plan for one.  It cannot be a plan that is imposed from above, but rather one that bubbles up from below.  St. Louis is a region with some great ideas—unfortunately, those with the loudest voices or the biggest checkbooks can trump even the best ideas.  Other cities plan well—Indianapolis has figured it out!—and there are pockets of smart folks here that are trying to follow Indy’s lead. We can do this.  Interstate 64 proved that!  Where do we want to be in 2020?  The decisions we make in 2010 will determine the answer!

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