Motorists will again be asked to avoid one of Oklahoma City's busiest intersections beginning this spring and lasting through the year as the next phase of a decade-long upgrade begins.
State transportation officials this week awarded an $8 million contract to Catoosa-based Sherwood Construction to upgrade the ramp that connects eastbound Interstate 44 to southbound Interstate 235.
As many as 93,000 motorists a day use the intersection of the two highways.
This portion of the project could take as long as nine months, said Terri Angier, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
It will bring about the permanent closure of the I-235 southbound exit ramp to NW 50 and the closure of I-235 in its entirety for as long as two days this summer, Angier said.
“The good news is that there are alternatives around this interchange,” she said.
Plans are to widen and slightly reposition the ramp to give vehicles more room to access the ramp on I-44 and exit onto I-235. Angier said workers will also upgrade the roadways leading to and from the ramps on both highways.
A similar ramp redesign last year in the northwest quadrant of the intersection cost $23 million and took a full year to complete.
The projects together comprise the first of seven total remodel phases at the intersection, a 10-year project that will likely cost more than $200 million once complete.
The overarching goal is to relieve congestion and reduce accidents in an intersection that was built when traffic was not nearly as heavy as it is today, Angier said.
Life span outlived
I-44, opened in 1978, carries the largest number of vehicles of any highway in Oklahoma County, and both Broadway Extension and I-235 have exceeded their life span and capacity over the past several years.
The interchange's cloverleaf design is not conducive to the heavy traffic load, Angier said, and will be replaced with wider lanes and a set of flyover bridges.
It is not uncommon during peak hours for traffic to be backed up several miles in each direction north and south on I-235 and Broadway Extension as vehicles push through the bottleneck.
In some cases, several lanes on opposing sides merge in the same place into a center lane, and it's not uncommon for vehicles to be backed up on the ramps and even onto the highways.
Jennifer McClintock, who lives in far north Oklahoma City, said she no longer takes Broadway Extension to her downtown job because of the “white-knuckle” congestion there.
Despite fewer lanes and significantly more traffic signals, McClintock, who works for the city, said it only takes her about 10 minutes longer to take Western Avenue instead.
“I think a lot of it is the stress of dealing with it,” she said. “You get all that infill there as people try to fill in — everyone squeezing from three lanes to two — and right as you get all that done you get all those people trying to merge. It's just a big mess.”
Paul Ryckbost, an urban planner and engineer who lives near the state Capitol, said he dreads his daily drive to his job site in northwest Oklahoma City — a route that takes him north on I-235 to westbound I-44 and then back, sometimes twice a day.
“You get this nice wide road and then you have to squeeze down into this tight interchange,” he said. “To me, that's one of the biggest problems — the choke point on both sides.”
Data indicates traffic collisions and injury accidents doubled in frequency during last year's construction on the northwest quadrant of the interchange, but Angier said the department does not anticipate that will be as significant a problem for the looming project.
There will be no double-yield sign like that of last year's project, and typically the bottleneck on I-235/Broadway Extension slows traffic there enough that merging south onto I-235 should not be as dangerous as merging onto I-44 last year.
“I can't tell you this will be a breeze; I can only tell you it won't be as bad as that first one,” Angier said.