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As Highway 40 project cruises to an end, cities affected look toward more sales tax revenue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 -  Thousands of St. Louisans will no doubt rejoice when Interstate 64/Highway 40 reopens in a few weeks. But rejoicing even more will be a small group of men and women for whom the project meant headaches beyond fuming in congested traffic.

When the Missouri Department of Transportation announced that it would shut down Highway 40 for the largest highway construction project in its history, drivers were more than a little skeptical.

Area residents worried about traffic jams and getting to work. But officials in the affected municipalities had bigger worries. Would more traffic damage local streets -- adding to their budget woes? Would emergency vehicles be able to reach those in distress? Would businesses fold as customers decided it wasn't worth the hassle to go them?

But their biggest worry: How far would sales tax revenue plummet when business fell off?

Now, as the project nears its end and motorists eagerly await the highway's reopening, local officials largely admit that the meltdown didn't occur. Traffic, while difficult at times, wasn't frozen into gridlock; emergency vehicles still managed to get to where they were needed; and businesses didn't fail in droves.

But their worst fear did materialize: Sales tax revenue took a hit. That hit became a double whammy when the economy tanked several months after the closure of the western portion of the route, from Ballas Road to Interstate 170, last year.

Frontenac saw a 6 percent drop in revenue with the highway closure, city manager Bob Shelton said. When the economy floundered, tax revenue dropped 15 percent, he added.

"Financially, it has had an impact on Frontenac," he said. "We're very dependent on sales tax revenue."

Martin J. Corcoran, Maplewood city manager, said it was hard to know how much of the sales tax drop is due to Highway 40 or the economy. Corcoran estimated sales tax revenue dropped 4 percent during the western closure "before the recession had hit." It appears to be down by a similar amount with the eastern closure, a surprise to Corcoran who thought the western closure would have a greater impact on Maplewood than the eastern. (This year, the eastern half, between I-170 and Kingshighway, was closed.)

"That was just our thought," he said. "We didn't have any empirical evidence to say we were right or wrong on that. But is that 4 percent recession-driven or is that highway-driven? That becomes the question."

Michael Wooldridge, Ladue's city clerk, agreed that both the highway closing and the recession have hurt the city.

"I'm not sure I can say a percentage was related strictly to the highway and a certain amount to the economy," he said. "I would say the closure was an impact, but it's difficult to say how much."

Officials are hoping the reopening of the highway will restore at least some business. "The impact once (the western section) opened was obvious from the first day. The traffic flow on city streets improved dramatically, and I would expect we will see further improvement when they open the eastern half and it gets back to, quote, normal," Wooldridge said.

Brentwood city manager Chris Seemayer says revenue there dropped 5 percent since the western closure. "It's hard to put your finger exactly on where it came from -- the pullback of the economy or the closure."

Seemayer said the city anticipated the drop in sales tax revenue when MoDOT announced the highway's closure and planned to take up the slack by changing city employees' health-care coverage, keeping two positions open and delaying capital improvements.

He feels lucky that the decrease was so small. "Cities all across the county, even ones far from Highway 40, have seen reductions -- and much steeper ones than ours," he said.

On the plus side, Shelton reports the city hasn't seen any of Frontenac's businesses close.

"We actually had some that opened offices here -- satellite offices," he said. "I think the Hilton probably lost some special events when you couldn't get off at Lindbergh, but we did not see any businesses actually go out of business."

Other officials, including Corcoran, also say that businesses did not close in any dramatic numbers.

Probably no town was hit harder than Richmond Heights, said Irene Johnson, the city's public relations coordinator. The city lost 65 homes and 79 other properties were reduced in size by construction and for utility easements, she said.

Residents have been hindered by more bridge closures -- nine -- than any other municipality, and detours brought more traffic to the city's streets making them unsafe for residents' children, Johnson added.

Revenue in Richmond Heights plunged 15 percent in 2008 as compared to 2006 and 21 percent in 2009, Johnson said. Officials were able to maintain city services because they earmarked contingency funds to prevent their interruption.

The jury is still out on whether the pain was worth it. Most people agree they won't know until the new road is completely up and running whether the sacrifices were worth it.

Ultimately, Corcoran says, "It allowed the state to save money, but it was at the expense of other governments -- county government and local government.

"It was also at the expense of the taxpayers who have longer commute times, spent more time in their cars, had to spend more for gas for longer routes so there was a financial impact on the average citizen. The state saved money, but businesses and the average resident commuting to and from work suffered."

Highway 40: by the numbers

Length of reconstruction: 9 miles

Number of interchanges: 13 (Spoede, Lindbergh, Clayton/Warson, McKnight, Brentwood, I-170, Hanley, Big Bend, Bellevue, McCausland, Clayton/Skinker, Hampton, Kingshighway)

Overpasses: 6

Recycled material: 456,156 tons

Concrete pavement: 261,235 cubic yards

Barrier: 157,381 linear feet

Retaining walls: 413,000 square feet

Bridge deck panels: 238,000 square feet

Structural steel: 5 million pounds

Reinforcing steel: 11.5 million pounds

Structural concrete: 60,000 cubic yards

Concrete beams: 456

Earth excavated: 1.5 million cubic yards

Rock Excavation: 38,000 cubic yards

Pipe: 95,000 linear feet

Source: MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on transportation.