Interstate interchange to undergo major changes with new ODOT project, some business owners unhappy

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Sections of Interstate 240 will soon be under construction (Mark Hancock)

If you don’t know someone who has a scary story about driving through the Interstate 35 and Interstate 240 junction on the south side of Oklahoma City, you are probably in the minority. One business owner nearby has to relive the dangers and even terror of it daily.

“There have been people killed right in front of the shop. Right here,” Gary Butler said as he stood outside of his MAACO Auto Body Repair shop and pointed to a spot on I-240 about 50 yards away. “There are multiple wrecks here a day.”

He owns a body shop located on S. Frontage Road by I-240 between S. Shields Boulevard and I-35 within view of the area that is about to undergo major changes.

New traffic

The interchange was originally designed for 31,000 cars per day but now regularly handles 120,000.

After over 20 years of study, property acquisition and discussions with neighbors and business owners in the area, Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) is set to start a long process of rebuilding the outdated and deadly intersection with a new design.

Since traffic will need to continue to flow through the junction during the $110 million construction project, ODOT plans to make the changes in six stages over six years starting in 2016 and ending in 2022.

To better handle current and future projected traffic needs, the new design will take up more space than the current one, resulting in some current entrances and exits near the current exchange being closed.

After years of informal meetings, the design was presented officially to neighbors and business owners in the area at a meeting this year on June 11. It calls for extensive changes in concept from the current one.

An ODOT presentation used at the meeting identified several problems with the current outdated design that needed to be addressed:

• Inadequate capacity

• Poorly spaced access

• Substandard bridge and ramp   configurations

The presentation reveals new designs that include a multilevel interchange with “flyover” ramps and new configurations for how to access city streets in the area. In the new design, key intersections for accessing different parts of the city from I-35 will be SE 59th Street on the north and SE 89th Street on the south.

For I-240, key intersections in the new design are Santa Fe Avenue on the west and Eastern Avenue on the east.

Permanent closures

ODOT’s design calls for permanently closing access to Pole Road on the east and Shields Boulevard on the west sides of the current exchange.

Pole Road is primarily a convenience for Plaza Mayor at the Crossroads, but the new designs will produce seven access points to the property.

In addition, the new designs will involve the state declaring eminent domain and taking edges of the mall property to configure a new access road that is a part of the plan.

However, the added access and better-organized flow of traffic into and out of Plaza Mayor is considered by management to be a win for the regional-sized mall property.

“At the beginning, looking at it, we were really nervous because they were closing Pole Road and SE 66th Street,” Plaza Mayor Manager Kristi Cole said. “But after seeing the simulation, I think it really is going to be OK for us.”

Objections

While businesses on the east side of I-35 like Plaza Mayor are happy with the designs for the junction, some businesses around the intersection of I-240 and S. Shields Boulevard are not. According to Elaine Lyons, President and CEO of the South Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, businesses east of the interchange along Shields Boulevard will be hit hardest in the new plan.

Their greatest concern is access to the local businesses along Shields Boulevard and the economic impact that reduced access might cause.

Lyons said that they had not worked up a dollar figure on what they thought the economic impact might be.

Lyons and Chairman of the Board Paul Urquhart signed a letter dated June 25 to ODOT Executive Director Mike Patterson. The letter, approved by the South OKC Chamber Board, listed several concerns, including the economic impact on local businesses and added traffic strain to Eastern, Santa Fe and Walker avenues due to the closing off of Pole Road and Shields Boulevard.

According to Lyons, the South OKC Chamber has had no response to its letter from ODOT.

Bob West, part owner of the local Western wear retailer Langston’s, said he had missed the last meeting on the new design for the interchange, although he saw ODOT design plans “about nine years ago.”

“[If Shields is cut off to I-240,] it will affect our business, especially people coming from the north and the south,” he said.

Butler, the body shop owner, said he and others around the intersection of I-240 and Shields Boulevard were not aware that ODOT’s plans called for completely closing off direct access either way.

“I understand why they are doing it because it is deadly,” he said. “I understand that they need to do something, but this just hurts the business. It’s going to limit access to my business and other businesses in the area quite a bit.”

ODOT response

“This is very, very common and understandable for us that people would be very nervous about that,” said Terri Angier, chief of media and public relations at ODOT. “When there is a very high-density development in the area and you are trying to expand a highway, they have to take right-away from somewhere.”

Now, businesses have two access points to Shields, which are being moved to the Santa Fe Avenue intersection just one-third of a mile away, where four access points will be a part of the new design, Angier said.

“It really doesn’t impact them in any way except to make it safer for them and add capacity to people who are trying to get to their businesses and aren’t sitting in congestion or trying to weave into traffic,” she said.

She also said that since they start on the outer edges of a project and work in, the Shields Boulevard and Santa Fe Avenue area would be part of the early stages of this project.


Print headline: Construction conjunction, Amid objections, Oklahoma Department of Transportation begins a big fix of a major city intersection.

Brett Dickerson

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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