Whether you’ve been a visitor to St. Louis or you’re a native of St. Louis, there’s a high chance that you’ve ended up confused by the road or highway you’re on.
The interstates alone in St. Louis can give a driver a headache with the confusion, but each interstate has its own little background story of why it is that way.
The Basics: The Beginning of the Interstate System
The interstate system came to fruition in the United States because drivers wanted better roads for their cars.
There was difficulty starting the interstate system because there was conflict between three groups of drivers and their different wants: commercial drivers, farmers, and pleasure drivers.
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower started the interstate system by signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
“You’ll regularly hear Dwight Eisenhower called the father of the interstate,” says Dr. Flannery Burke, a professor at Saint Louis University.
Eisenhower stated the interstate system was the most important achievement he accomplished in office, which is still an integral part of American life today.
Each numbered interstate has a code, with the legend displayed on the left, so that the American traveler knew where they were headed without confusion.
Speed limits on interstates are set by the states, contrary to popular belief that the federal government regulates speed limits.
The speed limits on St. Louis interstates are set at 60 mph due to the interstates winding through highly populated areas.
Was the First Interstate in St. Louis?
Eisenhower’s interstate system is integral to the history of St. Louis interstates because St. Louis claims their portion of I-70 as the first interstate to be built under Eisenhower’s interstate project.
“I-70 was actually built upon the route that the Mormons followed to Utah,” says Teresa Militello, a curator at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis.
There is a dispute between Missouri and California as to whether I-70 or the Pasadena Freeway was built first under the Federal Highway Act.
However, the Pennsylvania Turnpike actually trumps both, as it was built before the highway act was even signed.
Will the Real Route 66 Please Stand Up?
Out of all the highways in the United States, Route 66 is the most famous and a good portion of it runs through Missouri.
Many St. Louis drivers get confused though by the plethora of roads boasting Route 66- which one really is Route 66?
“The route of the Highway 66 through St. Louis has changed several times depending on traffic, businesses, and roads being built,” says Militello, “but the most well-known road portion of Route 66 in Missouri is Watson Road.”
All of the roads with signs stating Route 66 used to be a part of the highway at one point. While some signs just state “Route 66 Byway”, others state “Route 66 Alternate Route” or list the specific time period it was classified as Route 66.
The Confusion of Entering St. Louis: How do I Get There?
There are four interstates running into the city of St. Louis and this causes major confusion among visitors to the area. There’s a sign entering the city of St. Louis that lists all four of them: I-55, I-44, I-64, and I-70.
And on top of that, there’s two bypass highways (255 and 270) as options to take when you’re entering St. Louis as well.
“The problem,” says Militello, “is that the interstates don’t go through the city, they go around it.”
Militello also says the entrance to St. Louis is confusing because the bridges were built with the intention of carrying trains across, which is why the interstates continue outside of the city.
I-64 vs US 40 vs State Route 61: All the Same?
Has anyone ever told you to take 40 to a destination and you have no idea what they’re referring to?
That’s US Highway 40, also known as I-64.
“Most interstates were built over already existing state routes and highways,” says Dr. Burke.
So that’s why the St. Louis natives commonly refer to it as 40, the original road before I-64 came.
“US 40 was actually seen as a death trap initially, with a speed limit of only 35 mph, and I-64 was built over it as a way of connecting the suburbs of St. Louis,” says Militello.
But where does the 61 come into play that’s listed on the interstate sign?
“That’s Lindbergh Boulevard,” says Militello, “or North Kirkwood Road in Kirkwood. It’s a section of US Route 61.”
Not confusing at all, right?
The Ghost of I-755: What Could’ve Been
You get off Exit 38B: Chestnut Street and 20th Street and find yourself on a very long, winding exit ramp.
This odd exit was intended to be an on-ramp for proposed Interstate 755.
The idea behind constructing I-755 was to create a more direct route through St. Louis by actually going through the city.
The project never got off the ground because the interstate would have cut through established neighborhoods. People resisted losing their homes and paying increased taxes to fund the road.
All that’s left to remember I-755 is the strange exit ramp of 38B and the arrows pointing you straight to grass instead of the interstate.
The Lack of HOV Lanes and the Odd Solutions
While some states dedicate a lane of their interstates to be an High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, Missouri doesn’t do this.
That’s because they have their own way of constructing an HOV lane.
Along I-70, just after crossing into Missouri via the McKinley bridge, exists expressways, says Militello.
The direction of travel on these expressways is reversible depending on the volume of traffic.
There’s also the existence of outer roads along I-64 that might be put in place for traffic flow.
“Outer roads, or frontage roads, are built outside highways for easier access to businesses, agriculture, or as local express lanes,” says Dr. Burke.
The St. Louis Traffic Problem and its Bad Drivers
One question a St. Louis native gets constantly: “Why is everyone in St. Louis such a bad driver?”
Militello has an answer for that. “Even as early as the 20th century, St. Louis officials knew the layout of the city wasn’t perfect,” she says.
The poorly planned grid and lack of access to roads cause St. Louis drivers to hop all over different roads to get where they want to go, creating an illusion of terrible drivers.
“St. Louis drivers can be a little self-centered,” Militello laughs, “but the poor city layout doesn’t help.”
More Road Mysteries of St. Louis
There are even more road oddities in St. Louis besides the interstate quirks I’ve mentioned in this blog post. Did you know St. Louis has one of the only four unique approaches to traffic congestion? Click through this interactive map to read more and find out where all these wacky sites are in St. Louis.
Dr. Flannery Burke, Professor at Saint Louis University
Federal Highway Administration
Teresa Militello, Curator at Museum of Transportation
Secret St. Louis by David Baugher