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?