Quicker and safer, Interstate 49 becomes official

As a child, Molly Bean and her siblings in the back seat would play a game of counting the houses, barns and filling stations along old U.S. 71 between Kansas City and southern Missouri.

This week, when she and her husband make the familiar trip to their place at Table Rock Lake, she can count the interstate signs.

The old country road that used to flood in the spring has been brought up to full standard and today officially becomes Interstate 49 from south Kansas City through Joplin and nearly to the Arkansas border.

“There aren’t many barns anymore,” Bean said wistfully. “It’s not as pretty as it was.”

But interstates aren’t necessarily meant to be pretty. They’re meant to be safe, fast and efficient. They are arteries of commerce, and cities all along the corridor are looking forward to the advantages they expect to come with being on an interstate.

State and local officials will gather at 4:30 p.m. today at Gail’s Harley-Davidson in Grandview to celebrate a moment that has been decades in coming.

“Interstate 49 is the latest chapter of a developing story that starts with the concept of the South Midtown Freeway in the early 1950s, but was sidetracked for about two decades during the lawsuit over Bruce R. Watkins Drive,” said Steve Porter, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

During that time, other interstate corridors into Johnson, Platte, Clay and eastern Jackson counties blossomed.

“Now, the Route 71 corridor is not only catching up, it has distinct advantages,” Porter said.

MoDOT and local governments have invested well over $150 million in transportation improvements in the past five years, from the Three Trails Crossing in south Kansas City to the Cass-Bates county line.

New overpasses were built at 283rd and 327th streets, and a new interchange was built at 307th Street as part of the elimination of more than 20 at-grade intersections along U.S. 71.

A new interchange on Missouri 150 at Botts Road and a new interchange at Thunderbird Road provide improved connectivity to I-49 for the CenterPoint Intermodal Center and the new National Nuclear Security Administration campus.

A new $21 million interchange is planned in 2014 at Missouri 291 and I-49 at Harrisonville.

A $3 million project to rebuild and widen Missouri 7 is also planned to improve the connection of I-49 to the Harrisonville business district.

Trucks already accounted for nearly a third of the traffic on U.S. 71, making it the second-busiest freight artery out of Kansas City. That is expected to increase with the interstate designation.

Overall, creating I-49 in Missouri has cost nearly $500 million, according to MoDOT. After a noon ceremony today at Joplin East Middle School, workers will uncover about 1,200 red and blue I-49 shields already installed on signposts along the 185-mile route in Missouri.

Signs saying U.S. 71 will remain, because the road will continue to be part of the national U.S. 71 corridor.

The designation will create an unbroken interstate connection from Joplin to Canada, by way of Interstate 435 in the Kansas City area and Interstate 29 going north.

Watkins Drive will not become part of Interstate 49 because it has three at-grade intersections with traffic signals. That was part of the settlement of the lawsuit over whether the road would be a super highway or more of a parkway.

The new I-49 was not called I-29 because interstate protocol requires that north-south routes increase in numerical designation from west to east.

“If it were to be named I-29, it would cross I-35 and that would be against the standard naming convention,” said Sean Matlock, transportation project manager in the Joplin office of MoDOT. “Where we are situated in Missouri, it has to be an odd number between I-35 on the west side of the state and I-55 on the east side.”

In addition, there is already an I-49 in Louisiana, and that section and the Missouri section are supposed to eventually link up. Arkansas, however, is facing an estimated $3 billion price tag to build its portion of interstate over the Ouachita Mountains.

U.S. 71 was already a divided highway with a 70 mph speed limit. But interstates have rules:

• Drivers are expected to stay in the right lane unless passing.

• Stopping on the shoulder is not allowed except for emergencies.

• U-turns and motorized bicycles are prohibited.

• Size and weight limits and axle weight distribution rules for commercial vehicles that apply to interstates will be enforced on I-49 beginning March 11, after a 90-day grace period.

• Agricultural implements are prohibited from operating on their own power on interstates.

“That means farmers who might have driven tractors or combines on U.S. 71 will have to haul the machinery once the highway is designated I-49 on Dec. 12,” warns a MoDOT announcement.