Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Highway Departments Designing Communities

We have two high profile situations in St. Louis where some of the most important planning work in our region is being led by highway departments. The latest is the South County Connector - a joint project of the St. Louis County Highway Department, MODOT, and the Federal Highway Administration. The second is the finalizing of the Arch redesign effort.

In the case of the South County Connector, the County Highway Department is leading the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) of a project to connect Mid-County to I-55 via River Des Peres. At the Arch grounds, MODOT is working on highway access to the planned improvements coming to the Arch.

Federal dollars spent on highway projects trigger NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) reviews. The EIS process is the first step in satisfying NEPA requirements. In the EIS, project alternatives are identified, impacts and mitigation are analyzed, and, ultimately, a preferred alternative is chosen.

It's possible that the best alternative is deemed the "no project" alternative. However, you would not expect many highway planning efforts to result in a finding that "no project" is the best alternative. Planning efforts are expensive and they are intended to "pave the way" for new projects.

Planners frame the process. In the case of the South County Connector, the process is being framed to connect the Manchester/Hanley intersection to the Shrewsbury Metrolink station at Lansdowne and River Des Peres. From there, to get to I-55, commuters would travel down River Des Peres boulevard through existing neigborhoods.

In the case of the Arch grounds, planners analyzed the option of closing Memorial Drive in front of the Arch. Closing Memorial Drive is part of the approved environmental review in the new General Management Plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

The South County Connector is a project of the County Highway Department. The cities of St. Louis, Webster Groves, and Shrewsbury are not proposing a new federally funded highway connector through their neighborhoods; the planners at the highway department are.

The final version of the plan to improve the Arch grounds will soon be revealed to the general public. It will be the first time the public sees the working drawings for how MODOT and the National Park Service plan to connect downtown, the interstate highway system and the Arch grounds.

At the start of the Arch planning process over two years ago, bad connectivity, largely based on the barrier created by the highway, was identified by the public as the number one problem with the Arch grounds. Soon we will see the results of the public process. At the end of the day, will St. Louis get a widened highway structure between downtown and the Arch grounds?

As the South County Connector project begins its planning process, there is no clear sense of the biggest problems facing the area to be served. County highway planners state that the biggest problem to be solved is to provide faster travel times between South County and the Clayton/Richmond Heights/Brentwood commercial center. Yet many South County residents disagree, saying travel times from their homes to mid-County are less than thirty minutes.

Traffic in the St. Louis region is very light by national standards. Is this because of good highway planning or low demands on the system? The streets of downtown St. Louis are said to have far greater capacity than they need. Tucker Boulevard is 8 lanes wide, and most downtown streets are one-way, higher speed routes. Is our vision as a region to have the fastest travel times for commuters, whether from South County to Mid-County or through the streets of downtown?

Short travel times hardly seem a good indicator of a region's competitiveness or quality of life. In some ways, it suggests the opposite. A little congestion can be a good thing. Slower is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many communities in St. Louis. What does it say about us when we give top priority to the community of commuters?


Alex Ihnen said...

Yes. We, our communities, cities and neighborhoods continue to defer to people who want highways, to pass through and see and do as little as possible. It doesn't work. No number of "connectors" or Interstate ramps will bring prosperity. At some point we have to begin building places where people feel comfortable and want to live, not just drive.

samizdat said...

"...not just drive." Or, perhaps somewhat more precisely, drive through. I am failing to see a true necessity for this connector, other than to placate those who feel that, somehow, their tax dollars should be spent on this particular project. I suppose there are some politics involved, as well. Great on campaign lit, but bad for the residents who will be forced to live with a four-lane state hwy in their front yards. Oh, well.

Anonymous said...

Is there any visible opposition to the South county project?

Rick Bonasch said...

At the community meeting held in Affton recently, there were maybe 60 or 70 people from the public in attendance, and probably 50 or so consultants and staffers there working on the project.

The general public has very little awareness of the project, and amng those that do know about it, most of them consider it so far off in the future that it's not real.

Not so. The planning process started now is not just the first step of planning. It's the first step in building the project. My sense is very few people are aware of what is going on.

I'm not opposed to it. I would be opposed if the net result is a negative impact on the quality of life in neighborhoods adjoining the connector.

If the gain from this project is to make commuting through existing neighborhoods faster at the expense of quality of life in those neighborhoods, I suspect there will be a lot of opposition.

When traffic is diverted off of existing connectors like Big Bend, Laclede Station, and Hampton, what happens to existing businesses in those areas?

Anonymous said...

I wonder how all those luxury homeowners backing up to River Des Peres along Wilmore Road will like having a three or four-fold (maybe more) increase in traffic volume to watch and listen to from their back yards?

Damon Harris said...

Good post. The Hwy Departments don't understand livability or they don't care. Regardless, the local governments are not articulating a coherent vision for what livability looks like in the region or within their discrete municipalities.

Where are the guiding principles that drive/constrain growth and development? The region needs a large scale community visioning process to determine priorities.

Scott Pluff said...

I lived on Foxcroft Dr. off of River de Peres Blvd. for eight years, and my wife's mom still lives in that neighborhood, so we have a vested interest.

At the very least, I'd like to see RDP connect to 44 near the metrolink station. This would greatly simplify traffic flow and take the heavy traffic off residential streets in Shrewsbury.

Second, RDP Blvd needs to be torn out down to bare dirt and rebuilt. It is one of the most dangerous roads in town, including narrow lanes that shift back and forth, poor drainage, a terrible intersection at Gravois, poor lighting, and a 50 foot deep ditch just a few feet from the roadway. Not to mention the pedestrian trail which in places is just 3 feet from traffic doing 60mph with no barriers.

I talked to MODOT about the lack of guard rails on RDP, and they said they cannot install rails because given the narrow lanes if a car hit the rail it would bounce over into oncoming traffic. Better to drive into the river, they say. Tell that to the people killed each year in just that way.

I say rebuild the RDP boulevard with limited access points, a 4' concrete divider down the center, wider lanes and shoulders. And install a red light camera at RDP and Gravois--that intersection is pure anarchy. I don't know what to do down by I-55 with all of those driveways and sporadic parked cars--they should hang whomever approved that layout.

Anonymous said...

The downfall of the Lou region is continuing and directly related to the destruction of neighborhoods via unknown plans by those in power: legalized discrimination in housing, pedestrian walkways and homes destroyed by expanded highways, poorly managed school districts, etc.

Very few know what's in these plans, that is the plan. The failure to finish the 170 connection to 44 means Hanley Rd, Big Bend, Brentwood Blvd etc become the "faux 170" south of 64, another nightmare in the works...