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'Malfunction Junction': MoDOT prioritizes work on I-70/U.S. 63 interchange

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Jana Rose Schleis/Missouri News Network
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Tim Martinie steers his rig at the QuikTrip off the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange. Martinie said drivers like himself do what they can to avoid the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange. “You got a combination of highway traffic trying to get on the interstate. And then you've got local traffic trying to go to businesses in that intersection. It’s just a cluster.”

Cluster. Bottleneck. Choke point.

These are just some of the many ways people describe the interchange where Interstate 70 and U.S. 63 meet in Columbia. Tim Martinie navigates an 80,000-pound fuel truck through the interchange daily, sometimes three or four times. He favors the nickname “Malfunction Junction.”

“The more traffic that goes through the intersection as the town grows, the more congested it is, obviously,” Martinie, who drives for Midland Transports, said. “And then the more congested it gets, the less patience people have. And they don’t necessarily drive properly. And it can create some real hazardous situations.”

Martinie said he and other fuel drivers will take a later exit and backtrack just to avoid the interchange during busy times of day. He’ll even go through town with his truck to avoid the trouble of the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange.

“If most drivers are like me, even if they have to go out of their way, they tend to avoid this type of stuff,” Martinie said. “You only get into what you have to get into.”

One of Martinie’s frequent stops is the QuikTrip right off the interchange. For that route, there is no avoiding the I-70/U.S. 63 crosshairs.

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Jana Rose Schleis/Missouri News Network
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Tim Martinie unloads his rig at the QuikTrip gas station off the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange in Columbia. Martinie delivers fuel throughout mid-Missouri for Midland Transports. “I think the average person doesn't realize what it takes, how many people and how many hoops you have to jump through to get gasoline to the pumps to put in their car. There's a lot of moving parts.”

Martinie has been witness to accidents along that stretch of roadway.

“I’ve been standing here unloading, and all of a sudden you hear screeching tires,” Martinie said.

Martinie has been delivering fuel since 1990. Due to the dangers of driving hazardous material, he’s very careful on the road, especially in sticky spots like the I-70/U.S. 63 connector.

“If something happens, it isn’t just going to happen to you, it’s going to affect a lot of people,” Martinie said. “You’re constantly driving defensive. There is no offensive driving. You can’t move fast enough to be an offensive driver.”

Martinie has seen how in really congested areas, like where the east-west interstate and the major north-south arterial highway meet in mid-Missouri, drivers get frustrated and try to speed around one another and out of the intersection. Martinie tries to be aware of those motorists and will pull back from those driving too fast or erratically.

“My wife says: ‘You’re driving a bomb.’ Well, I guess it potentially is.”

Improvement at top of list

The Missouri Department of Transportation keeps track of “unfunded needs” to identify infrastructure priorities. No. 1 on the list for mid-Missouri is the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange.

“Anyone who uses that location, I think, understands why,” said Machelle Watkins, engineer for MoDOT’s Central District.

The interchange experiences a high volume of traffic and congestion that cause crashes, Watkins said.

In the years between 2016 and 2020, 270 crashes occurred at the interchange, MoDOT Central District Communications Manager Adam Pulley said in an email to the Missouri News Network.

“Anyone who uses that location, I think, understands why.”
Machelle Watkins, engineer for MoDOT's Central District, on why the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange is their No. 1 priority.

In the $7.6 billion five-year plan for roads and bridges that it released in May, MoDOT proposed committing $140 million to update the interchange. The Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, factors in recent revenue increases from the state gas tax and a big bump in federal money.

Watkins said some of the congestion at comes from drivers trying to access businesses and amenities in the area.

Additionally, since I-70 is a main thoroughfare through Missouri, most truckers need to use it, adding to the volume. Tom Crawford, president and CEO of the Missouri Trucking Association, said it’s especially challenging for truck drivers such as Martinie who need to access and service the businesses in the area.

“It’s something that causes folks making deliveries and trying to get through the area to cringe,” Crawford said.

Watkins said MoDOT has heard from Missourians for years about the issues with congestion at the interchange. Over time there has been a steady increase in traffic at the connector.

Pulley said the roadways around I-70/U.S. 63 carry about 190,000 vehicles per day. The junction itself sees about 60,000 vehicles daily.

That volume of traffic means drivers are often stuck in the interchange queue for more than 30 minutes. Pulley said during peak travel periods backups are a half-mile long.

Potential solutions

MoDOT’s unfunded needs list is long and contains three tiers of projects. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last fall by Congress enables MoDOT to pick projects off the top of the list for examination.

“As additional funds are made available from transportation, we actually refer to that needs list to identify what priorities we’ll move forward with for funding,” Watkins said.

Even with a $2 billion influx of federal money, MoDOT is only able to address the highest-priority projects. In addition to desperately needed improvements, the commitment to maintenance in MoDOT’s latest plan is clear. For years, inflation and insufficient resources negatively impacted the agency’s ability to property maintain existing infrastructure.

“We’re very excited about the fact that we can look beyond just taking care of our system, which is where we’ve been for nearly a decade,” Watkins said. “Each year inflation eats away at existing funding, and we’ve been able to take care of less over time.”

Watkins said MoDOT is undergoing an environmental study to identify potential solutions that best serve the area.

Crawford said MoDOT reaches out to the trucking industry when it needs feedback on certain areas or projects. Truckers know the roads well from regular use. He thinks flyover lanes could be a good solution to the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange challenges.

“There’s a lot more solutions available today than there were when that interchange was first put into place,” Crawford said.

Watkins said flyover lanes, or sky ramps, are “certainly a solution to be considered.”

“Flyover lanes are usually long directional ramps that move traffic over traditional types of intersections to reduce the points of contact,” Watkins said. “They can help reduce congestion in areas, but they do tend to be on the more expensive end of solutions.”

The interchange update is listed as a potential “design-build” project in MoDOT’s plan. This means contractors compete to build and design the solution. The $140 million contract for the Columbia interchange is scheduled to be awarded next June.

MoDOT’s Central District will be conducting public meetings later this summer to discuss potential fixes.

Even though he works for a private company, Martinie said he feels like a public servant. Delivering fuel is an essential job. He is looking forward to MoDOT’s eventual interchange update and hopes it can ease the burden of truck drivers like himself and everyone who travels through Columbia.

“It’s obviously going to be a costly project, whatever they do, but as the town continues to grow and traffic continues to increase, I don’t see that they’ve got much choice.”