COUNCIL BLUFFS — Travel is about to get more complicated for motorists who use the Council Bluffs Interstate system, with work scheduled to ramp up on a $2 billion reconstruction project.
But by the end of this year, drivers will also be able to take advantage of some of the improvements now under construction, including new overpasses at the Interstate 80/29 interchange near the Mid-American Center.
The rebuilding of the Bluffs freeway system is the biggest project in the Iowa Department of Transportation's history, and the department wants to speed up the work.
The department has signed off on $120 million in projects over the past five years in Council Bluffs. Now it hopes to spend that amount every year for the next decade to update the Interstate system to accommodate growing traffic counts.
“This is a huge project for DOT,” said Troy Jerman, district engineer for southwest Iowa.
The federal government will pay 85 percent of the costs, with the rest coming from the state.
By speeding up the project, the department expects to save $33 million, mostly in inflation costs. The expedited timetable is pending approval from the Iowa Transportation Commission.
The work was scheduled to be completed in 2024. If the new timetable is approved, planners expect to wrap up construction on most of the projects in 2020 or 2021. “Our emphasis is to get in, get out,” said Jerman. “We don't want to drag this out.”
Some future projects, such as the I-480/29 interchange and the I-80/U.S. Highway 6 interchange, have not been scheduled. With those projects included, the total price tag for the project is estimated at $2 billion.
On Tuesday, the department will host an open house at the Mall of the Bluffs to explain the overall project to the public.
The biggest change to the system will be on I-29/80 on the south side of Council Bluffs.
That stretch of Interstate will be rebuilt into a “dual divided freeway” to create new express lanes.
Eastbound and westbound motorists on I-80 who don't want to exit at the South Expressway or 24th Street will be directed into three inside express lanes. Local traffic will use the two outside lanes. The express lanes will be separated by a concrete median.
Work on that project has already begun, with new lanes under construction just to the north of the current ones along the I-29/80 stretch.
Construction also will begin soon on a new U.S. Highway 275 interchange near the Iowa School for the Deaf.
There will be some short-term closures of specific ramps, although workers will try to minimize that as much as possible.
Motorists will be able to access real-time traffic information on the website for the project before leaving their home or office.
“With any construction, there are going to be impacts,” Jerman said.
Travelers can already see some of the new interchange bridges under construction. The new overpasses near the Mid-America Center will begin carrying traffic this fall and are intended to make merging at the interchange safer.
Eventually, the Bluffs interchanges will be more like Omaha's, where motorists exit to the right, even if the road they are entering goes to the left. “That'll be a key safety improvement,” Jerman said.
Alvin Smith, 70, who lives south of Hastings, Iowa, said he's glad to know the improvements are coming.
“That (is) a death trap down there,” he said about the interchange near the Mid-America Center. “This is a wonderful thing they are doing.”
He was drinking coffee Tuesday with Deanna Moscato at the Travel Centers of America truck stop in Council Bluffs.
“I'm sure that's going to be a good thing,” said Moscato, 70.
The reason for the Interstate work is two-fold: More capacity is needed in the Bluffs area, and the system is more than 50 years old.
I-29/80 carries about 75,500 vehicles per day, a number expected to climb to 130,000 per day by 2030. The stretch was originally designed to handle 32,500 vehicles per day.
The Council Bluffs Interstates generally have less traffic than I-35/80 around Des Moines, which carries 112,700 vehicles per day.
Still, traffic on the Bluffs system is increasing because of population gains and more development along the Interstates.
Said Will Sharp, the design program manager for the project: “It's carrying a lot more traffic than it was ever designed for.”
Interstate reconstruction in Council Bluffs
Click on the image above or here for a closer look at the interstate reconstruction plans.