St Louis South County Connector: County's bike/ped policies embarrassingly outdated; Trailnet weighs in

Recently the proposed St. Louis South County Connector has been in the news.  St. Louis County held a series of public meetings about the project, which is a proposed major new multi-lane highway cutting through heavily populated areas of Maplewood, Webster Groves, Shrewsbury, and St. Louis City. 

South County Connector logo
South County Connector logo

In its current form, the Connector is now opposed by all cities involved--in large part because of large negative impacts on bicycle, pedestrian, and transit connectivity through area.

Trailnet and other local groups have called for the County to withdraw the proposed Environmental Impact Statement and re-think the entire project from the beginning. Trailnet's South County Connector page has details about the project, the issues, and the numerous opponents.

St Louis County's embarrassing attitude towards biking and walking receives national exposure

Criticism of the proposal brought out some real defensiveness in the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic, which is leading the project. A Department employee got national attention when he declared, "We’re a highway department; we’re not a bicycle department."  

A few months later, he clarified, "As a matter of policy, we don’t build dedicated bike lanes. St. Louis County salutes the bike-riding community, but we manage our system in the knowledge that motor vehicles comprise the vast majority of our customer base."

The remarks inspired a "Motor Mouths" competition at Streetsblog to find the most clueless statement from a transportation official that demonstrates the most complete contempt for pedestrians, cyclists, or transit riders.

They found seven examples from across the U.S., all abyssmal.  But in the end, St. Louis County won the cluelessness competition handily

St. Louis County Highways and Traffic
St. Louis County Highways and Traffic

This is really a sad commentary on St. Louis County.  As one of the most densely populated regions of Missouri--a county where there is tremendous demand for better biking and walking facilities, a county a where there is already a large amount of bicycling and walking and where there would be far more if the County provided connectivity--the County and its Highways and Traffic Department it would be natural for the County to be a statewide and nationwide leader in Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School, healthy communities, and bicycle and pedestrian connectivity.

But they're not.

What should be one of the most supportive municipalities for bicycling and walking in the state of Missouri is, instead, one of the most resistant.

In an era where even MoDOT is embracing bicycling, walking, and other 'transportation alternatives' as part of its core mission, surely St. Louis County of all places can find room to do the same.

Trailnet's vision for the County and the South County Connector project

Trailnet CEO Ann Mack recently published an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailing what could and should happen in the County and with the South County Connector project

Ann's editorial hits on many of the changing demographics, trends, and key issues that make it imperative for St. Louis County to embrace biking, walking, and creating livable communities to remain economically competitive in the 21st Century:

Trailnet CEO Ann Mack
Trailnet CEO Ann Mack

Our region has made significant quality of life investments by passing Proposition C (Clean Water, Safe Parks and Community Trails), Proposition P (Safe and Accessible Arch and Public Parks), and Proposition A (MetroLink, Metrobus, and Call-A-Ride). 

These investments and the initiatives that are shaping our region reflect our waning dependence on motorized vehicles. The “Top 10 in College Attainment Initiative,” St. Louis Mosiac Project, and OneStL are three of many initiatives that serve our increasingly diverse population — people who travel less by car.

St. Louis County Department of Planning’s recent report, ‘The Generational Convergence of the Baby Boomers & the Millennials in St. Louis County’ also points to notable growth in populations most interested in car-free transportation.   

Given this convergence of investments, initiatives, and demographics, I think how much better St. Louis County residents and visitors would be served by a Department of Transportation instead of the current Department of Highways and Traffic. It’s not a name change I imagine but a shift in purpose and paradigm. 

I imagine a department guided by a comprehensive, safety-first Complete Streets policy that would ensure all County roads are conceived, designed, built, and maintained to support walking, biking, transit, car share, movement of goods, and wheelchairs — the transportation building blocks of livable, economically robust communities.

The South County Connector, and its previous iterations, would not be conceived of by the Department of Transportation I imagine. It would not be wasting taxpayer dollars on plans and one-way Open Houses for a road that welcomes only motorized vehicles traveling at 35+ mph — and has significant opposition.

St. Louis deserves a Transportation Department whose mission is to plan, design, and provide 21st Century projects that connect people and maximize land use. A department that puts St. Louis on the list of most livable US cities because it’s forward thinking, seeks broad support, serves as a convener, and encourages creative solutions.

What should happen next? First, the County needs to stop the current process. During the Draft Environmental Impact Statement comment period, serious concerns were raised by many stakeholders. Many municipalities’ and organizations’ letters of opposition can be found here.  

Solutions need to be solicited from the people who live, work, and play in the affected neighborhoods. Structured conversations need to take place between commuters of all modes, neighbors, business owners, and parents of kids attending schools in the study area. Include planners, engineers, architects, artists, entrepreneurs, biologists, landscape architects, and advocates for the disabled and the underserved.   

Conversations about headquarters in Clayton opening satellite offices that reduce customer and employee travel time should take place. Talk with employers about shifting schedules. Consider the world’s best examples of efficient transportation.

Since we’ve taxed ourselves to create and expand transit and trails along this corridor — is a new road even needed? If the project would study and publish where people’s trips originate and terminate, perhaps greater engagement with Great Rivers Greenway and Metro, as they analyze Bus Rapid Transit options along this same corridor, could sufficiently improve travel time through this corridor. We know from numerous studies, if communities make walking, biking, and transit a comfortable choice, people will choose them.

This project is a golden opportunity for St. Louis County to be transparent, collaborative, and forward thinking. To listen. The public has spoken on this project from the beginning and that will continue. As a public servant, the County is obligated to listen, respond, and act on the public’s behalf. This is the County Executive’s chance to leverage the public’s passionate response to this project. “Wow,” he should be saying, “here’s an informed, engaged citizenry. Let’s put them to work.”

Competitive regions succeeding in attracting and retaining talent know that when someone opens her front door, she must be able to travel to myriad destinations conveniently, enjoyably, and affordably. A smart phone and laptop will be part of the plan — a car may or may not.   

The commitments we’ve made as taxpayers to transit and trails; the diversity, sustainability, and educational initiatives we’re invested in; our defense of livability principles that improve our quality of life — all point to a healthier attitude and way of life. They bode well for St. Louis and are part of what makes it a good place to call home.

Ann is right--it's time for St. Louis County and its Highways and Traffic Department to join the 21st Century.

If you'd like to urge St. Louis County to make the change, Trailnet's South County Connector Page has a list of action steps.