Sign of the Times: The inescapable presence of a towering message board on Highway 40 has some Frontenac residents seeing red

Mark Alexander estimates he's poured $150,000 into his three-bedroom ranch house in the three years since his family moved to Frontenac. The Washington University police officer and his wife renovated every room and outfitted the yard with an attractive cobblestone patio. Though the U-shaped lawn, lined with oak and fir trees, backs right up to the new eastbound stretch of Highway 40, Alexander says it was both a peaceful sanctuary and a great spot for entertaining.

He puts the emphasis on was, because now that the west-county section of the widened highway has reopened, an enormous traffic-alert message board rises from the ground about 100 yards from the back side of the house, looming large over the entire Alexander homestead.

"I stand at my kitchen sink and look up, and boom, there it is," says Alexander. "I sit at the dining-room table, look up, and boom, there it is. You can see it from the living room. And in our bedroom, you wake up, you go to open the curtains, and boom, there it is.

"It's like living in a giant movie theater. It makes me ill."

While most folks' concerns about the massive, $535-million highway-reconstruction project center on congestion and commute times, residents of the west-county corridor abutting the roadway now find themselves trying to adjust to a bleak new aesthetic.

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) erected several miles of sound walls and four "dynamic message boards," as they're known in industry parlance, on the five-mile stretch of Highway 40 which opened December 15. Some commuters have begun to call the formerly leafy thruway a concrete tunnel. KMOX (1120 AM) talk-show host Charlie Brennan has, with tongue in cheek, been referring to the stretch as a "concrete majesty."

Though sound walls were anticipated — residents voted on them last year — the LED-illuminated traffic signs, which relay news of accidents, lane closures and AMBER Alerts, came as a complete surprise when they were installed in December.

What's more, the signs' size and scale caught people off guard. At 30 feet wide and 25 feet tall, the black steel panels are designed to be viewed by drivers up to 1,200 feet away. "I remember seeing it go up, and I thought, That is a big sign," notes Frontenac city administrator Bob Shelton.

Because the transportation department posted the signs on state-owned property, the agency did not need public input before determining their placement. "It's not like a billboard, where you are paid by the billboard company to have a sign on your property," explains MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson. "These message boards are only built on state property, in MoDOT's back yard."

Wilson says the agency's engineers situated the signs with the goal of giving drivers enough advance notice of traffic issues prior to arriving at major exchanges such as Lindbergh Boulevard. "Unfortunately," says Wilson, "every spot where we could put it was going to be behind somebody's house."

George Purviance, who lives two doors down from Mark Alexander in the Radcliffe subdivision, says MoDOT missed the mark. "I thought we had quite the deal going in with the sound walls, but Christ, this thing is overwhelming," says Purviance, a member of Frontenac's planning and zoning commission. He adds in a recent e-mail: "Why not place it down by the trailer park, just west of Spoede? That would have been a good location, and still west of Lindbergh."

Purviance says he can read the sign quite clearly from his house — a nuisance at nighttime. "It's no longer the white elephant in the room. It's the MoDOT yellow traffic sign in the room."

"Gosh, I'm surprised," responds Dan Galvin, chief spokesman for Gateway Constructors, the highway contractor. "The signs are aimed at the traffic flow," he notes.

MoDOT's Wilson says the region, including Franklin and Jefferson counties, has 89 message boards and that she has yet to field a similar complaint from homeowners near any of them. They are permanent fixtures, Wilson says, and at a cost of roughly $115,000 apiece, would be expensive to relocate.

Mark Alexander wonders, then, what will become of his property value. "We knew about the house backing up to the highway, and we didn't have a problem with that, per se," he says. "But now I worry we're going to be penalized because this sign is here 24/7."

Joe Dolan, a St. Louis County real estate appraiser with Dolan Appraisal Company, says the impact may not be as bad as Alexander fears. "Those properties have always lagged behind ones further away from the highway. This is obviously not a positive, but you don't really know how much it impacts the value until you put the property on the market."

Meanwhile, Frontenac's Bob Shelton hopes MoDOT will at least look into residents' concerns about the orange-yellow light that emanates from the towering sign. "MoDOT definitely needs to be proactive in remedying the situation," the city administrator says. "They should not be causing any undue hardship to any residential property as a result of this project."

 
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