A million out-of-state travelers expected to pack Missouri roads for solar eclipse

Expect Missouri roads to be busier than normal the days leading up to the solar eclipse — just how busy remains to be seen.

More than a million out-of-state visitors will pack Missouri’s roads over the four-day weekend, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Worst case scenarios would be traffic jams on the highways, like Interstate 29, leading into cities that are prime viewing of what for many will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“Our bottom line is, honestly, we don’t know how many people will be here and we don’t really know what traffic is going to be,” said Beth Carmichael, director of project development for the St. Joseph Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We do anticipate that traffic will be very dense.”

Because St. Joseph is so close to Kansas City and it falls in the sweet spot of the 70-mile-wide swath where the moon will completely cover the sun, the city is considered one of the prime viewing locations for people around the country and the world.

The main highways into St. Joseph are I-29, running north–south, and U.S. 36 running east–west.

But because the path of the eclipse cuts across the central Missouri, many highways and interstates in Missouri could be jammed, including I-70, I-44, I-55, U.S. 50, U.S. 54, U.S 63 and U.S. 67.

Originally, the visitors bureau was telling those who are headed up to St. Joseph to leave by 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. Aug. 21. Now they urging people to leave by 5 a.m. or 6 a.m.

“The people who are calling us and emailing asking us those questions are the ones who really want to be here and experience it,” Carmichael said. “We want them on site and ready to go so they can have that once-in-a-lifetime experience in St. Joseph.”

Residents and visitors alike are being told that they can expect temporary inconveniences on the day of the eclipse.

“We invite everybody that is coming up here to make sure they have a lot of patience and just plan ahead and make sure they are coming self-contained with some food and water,” Carmichael said.

During their initial planning, the visitors bureau looked at what happened during the Kansas City Royals’ World Series parade in 2015, where throngs of fans flooded the streets, some abandoning cars on the highway.

“We had all these people that came into that one area to see the parade and some people weren’t able to see it,” Carmichael said. “The cool thing with the eclipse is that you don’t have to be in one location to experience it.”

St. Joseph, for example, will have multiple viewing locations. The key, though, is to be in the path of totality when it starts at 11:40 a.m., Carmichael said.

One reason there’s uncertainty around how bad traffic will be is that the Kansas City area hasn’t seen a total eclipse since 1806, said Dan Johnson, owner of Astronomy Night and Day in Kansas City.

“The other situation is what if it’s cloudy?” Johnson said. “How will that affect the turnout? Nobody really knows. What if it’s raining? Will that affect turnout even more? I would think so.”

The early forecast calls for clouds and showers throughout the Midwest.

The safest bet to avoid traffic jams would be to head up to St. Joe the night before and stay at one of the camping sites, including those at the Rosecrans Memorial Airport.

“There are other cities — Lathrop, Boonville, Hiawatha, Kan. — that will get a lot of traffic,” Johnson said. “Their roads are smaller, and even though their crowds are expected to be smaller, you kind of wonder about their infrastructure and if they can handle it also. It’s just a problem for everybody.”

Whatever the case, people should plan for long days and be prepared for traffic problems by bringing snacks and plenty of water. People might want to bring bathroom tissue, too, because restroom facilities could be under high demands by the crowds.

People should also be prepared in case their cellphones can’t get a signal.

“If you plan to travel around, you should bring a paper map,” Johnson said. “Your cellphone or GPS navigation device may not work because of overusage of the cell towers.”

Since this spring, the Missouri Department of Transportation has been preparing for the eclipse, said Randy Johnson, Kansas City Scout manager. Road work has been a top topic of discussion.

“We do not plan on having active work zones from Friday, Aug. 18, all the way through Tuesday morning, Aug. 22,” Johnson said. “It is our intent to do our best to keep lanes open, although most people realize that if it’s a major project, sometimes we just can’t open a lane.”

Transportation officials anticipate that more than 1 million people from across the U.S. and the world will be visiting Missouri for the eclipse, beginning the Friday beforehand.

“There’s going to be a lot more traffic on our highways,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we are prepared for the extra traffic on our roadways and be prepared for heavy congestion, if people break down and so forth, to create the most safest environment we can for all the people traveling on the roadways.”

The Transportation Department will have its motor assist vehicles on patrol and has been reaching out to its maintenance supervisors and others to equip them with basic items.

“We will have many more vehicles roaming the highways to help people who are in need,” Johnson said.

On the day of the eclipse, Johnson said people should go to viewing areas rather than stopping on highways, which could lead to crashes.

People also should not try to take quick pictures with their phones while driving. Solar glasses are needed if you are looking directly at the sun and shouldn’t be worn while driving.

Drivers should also be extra vigilant to watch out for pedestrians who might be looking up and not looking ahead. Headlights also should be used when it gets dark during the eclipse.

“This doesn’t happen that often,” Johnson said. “So go early, stay late and not only enjoy the event, but enjoy being with your community and meeting people from around the world who are going to be right side by side with you.”

Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb

Driving tips for the solar eclipse

▪ Allow extra time to reach viewing location.

▪ Don’t stop on highways or park on the shoulder.

▪ Exit the highway to view or photograph the eclipse.

▪ Don’t take photographs while driving.

▪ Turn on headlights manually when it gets dark.

▪ Don’t wear the special eclipse glasses while driving.

▪ Avoid travel during the eclipse or in the main path.

▪ Watch out for pedestrians who might be looking up.

▪ Expect extreme congestion before and after the eclipse.

Source: Missouri Department of Transportation