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Connecting Sides Of St. Louis County With A Road Few Seem To Want

Since the 1950s, traffic planners have been looking for ways to make it easier to get north and south in St. Louis County. The original plan to extend Interstate 170 all the way to Interstate 44 was officially scrapped in 1997, and the proposed South County Connector is the first plan to make it passed the discussion stage since then.

As conceived, the $110 million road would essentially extend River Des Peres Boulevard to Hanley, and build a new interchange at Interstate 44. But many in the region are wondering why the county wants to build it at all.

Getting Around Without A Car

Every day when the weather allows, Kathleen Henry shoulders her bag and walks about a mile from her home in Webster Groves to the Sunnen MetroLink station.

"There's usually an orange cat who greets me there at one of those driveways," she says as she winds along residential streets with spacious houses and well-kept lawns. But the peace is shattered 12 minutes in.

"Now we get to the ugly part of the walk, where we're very close to cars that are going 35 to 45 miles an hour," she says as she approaches the intersection of Laclede Station and Marshall.

Laclede Station is already five lanes wide at this intersection, which Henry uses daily. Preliminary concepts for the Connector call for a sixth lane.

"I don’t see how I'm going to cross the street once the South County Connector goes through," Henry says. "They claim pedestrians will be allowed to cross, but that doesn’t mean it will be enjoyable or feel safe."

Credit southcountyconnector.com

(See full/more maps of the plans)

Changing Commutes, Rising Opposition

The numbers show that more people are joining Henry in finding car-free ways to get to work. According to the Federal Highway Administration, vehicle miles traveled peaked at just over 3 million in 2007, and have leveled off just below that number since.

Here in St. Louis, the advocacy group Trailnet says bicycle commuting has more than quintupled since 2007, though it’s still a small percentage of travel.

But John Hicks, the project manager for the South County Connector, says those numbers don't change the need for a new road.

"We’ll also continue to see increases in automobile uses," he said. "And even though this is an area that some people have indicated have lost population, parts of South County have had population growth. So it really serves a regional need."

But it's difficult to find someone who agrees with Hicks. The city of Maplewood and the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce are both opposed because of the impact the Connector would have on Deer Creek Center, which is nearing full capacity after a $37 million renovation. According to the city's letter, the current design would eliminate four of the stores in the strip mall, voiding the rest of the leases

Webster Groves, Shrewsbury, and the city of St. Louis don’t want the road either. Neither does Democratic county councilman Pat Dolan, who says he can’t remember getting one letter in support. The connector runs mostly through his Fifth District.

Why The Connector?

With so much opposition, why is the county pressing forward?

"When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail," explains Todd Swanstrom, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Community Collaboration and Public Policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." - Todd Swanstrom

By their nature, Swanstrom said, highway departments tend to think that any traffic problem can be solved by a road. Changing that mindset means fundamentally changing the way those departments look at a problem. 

"The standard of evaluation can’t be, we’re able to move more people from Point A to Point B faster and more efficiently," he said. "The issue is, how do people gain access to the things they need in their lives, and are there ways we can do this that aren’t just about building new roads."

The Connector meets those standards, said John Hicks with St. Louis County. Its construction improves things for all users.

"It's going to shave five minutes, 10 minutes of your trip, potentially," he said. "And then, I think more importantly, by pulling what would be considered regional traffic off of local roads, it makes those neighborhoods more liveable."

For example, he said, the county's studies predict that morning traffic on Shrewsbury Ave. between Big Bend Blvd. and Lansdowne will drop by 61 percent by 2040 if the Connector is constructed. In the afternoon, traffic along the same stretch is projected to drop by 45 percent by 2040.

"If you look at pulling traffic off of Shrewsbury Ave. for example, we're in discussion with the city of Shrewsbury on how that could be possibly put on a road diet and increase bike paths," he said. "Not everybody wants to ride a bike or walk over an interstate, but if there's a surface arterial that is available as well,   having both of those types of facilities available really serves a lot of people."

But Ann Mack, the CEO of Trailnet, says the county is missing the point. 

"It's an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars to build what is essentially a barrier." - Ann Mack

"It's an enormous lost opportunity to have one of the best multi-modal connections throughout our inner-ring suburbs," she said. "The Blue Line MetroLink parallels it, the Great Rivers Greenway trails all intersect in this exact location. It's a enormous waste of taxpayer dollars to build what is essentially a barrier."

Mack says she hopes the county will go back to the drawing board on the South County Connector. But to avoid a similar situation in the future, she and other advocates are pushing for Complete Streets legislation in the county. That would require roads be designed for all types of commuters from the beginning.

County officials are currently reviewing comments on the project’s environmental impact statement. They’ll submit the report and responses to the Federal Highway Administration in December.

This story is part of How We Move, an ongoing series on transportation and infrastructure in the St. Louis Region. Have an idea for a story for the series? Email us at news@stlpublicradio.org.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.