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St. Louis County Complete Streets Bill Remains In Limbo

A bicycle tire.
(via Flickr/photohome_uk)
A bicycle tire.

The "Complete Streets" legislation under consideration on the St. Louis County Council still faces plenty of roadblocks to final passage. One of the sponsors, Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, held up the bill again last week, which he’s done since late November, and announced he wants to rewrite parts of it.

Dolan also said that he’s going to meet with groups affected by the bill and come back to the matter early next year.

“We’re trying to work with some people,” Dolan said. “And when we get some more information, we’ll get back to talking to everybody involved and try to put this Complete Streets bill in a proper frame where everybody understands what’s going on.”

The bill, sponsored by Dolan, Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, and Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University Citycould make the county’s transportation department incorporate principles of Complete Streets into county road projects. Those are measures to allow “pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transportation users of all ages and abilities” to move “safely and comfortably along and across a street.”

The legislation has drawn passionate support – and opposition – during the council’s public forum section. 

The bill's proponents  – including Trailnet and Paraquad – say the bill will help make county roads more accessible to bikers, walkers and the disabled. But the county’s transportation department questioned whether it would saddle the county with unknown costs.

Rhonda Smythe, policy and advocacy manager for Trailnet, also said that proponents of the bill are meeting with interested parties, adding that “people need time to understand how it affects their organizations.”

“From our perspective, it’s much more valuable to have those stakeholders on board with a policy – rather than passing a policy that doesn’t have stakeholders on board,” she said. “Because the policy just lays out the vision; implementation is going to take decades.” 

"We're stewards of the public purse and we take that very seriously." -- St. Louis County Highways and Transportation Department spokesman David Wrone

St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic spokesman David Wrone said his department hasn't talked with any council member since before Thanksgiving.

While emphasizing that the department is already striping some bike lanes and maintaining sidewalks, Wrone reiterated that his department is “very concerned with the current bill's financial unknowns.” He also said his agency is worried it will be "strait-jacketed into a situation where we have to invest considerable sums of money to incorporate Complete Streets in basically all aspects of our day-to-day work."

“We would welcome a dialog,” Wrone said. “We would welcome dearly to sit down with the bill’s sponsors and discuss this issue because we can certainly support our estimates. If the language doesn’t say what we think it does, perhaps that language has to be amended to address our concerns.”

“We’re stewards of the public purse, and we take that very seriously,” he added.

Unusual opposition

While the bill has remained on hold, the issue consumed most of the council’s public forum section.

For instance, St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, told the council last week that St. Louis passed a Complete Streets ordinance in 2009. And he said the policy didn’t lead to increased costs in the city’s budget.

“We’re generally making incremental changes in conjunction with routine or capital projects that we would be doing anyway,” Ogilvie said. “So if there are increased costs, many of us strongly feel that they’re offset by improved safety and increased quality of life.”

But a group of bike enthusiasts have spoken out against the bill in recent weeks, saying that bike lanes don’t necessarily make bike-riding safer. Included in that group was Eli Karabell, a 17-year-old St. Louis resident who called the proposal “nightmarish.”

“When I’m riding in traffic and there’s no bike lane, the drivers respect me more,” Karabell said. “I feel 1,500 times – or 5,000 times – safer. And when there’s no bike lane, the world is a better place because drivers and bikers get along great.”

Eli Karabell made a passionate speech earlier in December against the proposed Complete Streets bill.

The bill also raised the ire of some St. Louis County conservatives. GOP state committeewoman Jennifer Bird said last week that “unless you’re going to put entire barriers around where you’re planning these bike paths that are car proof, it seems like you’re giving bikers a false sense of security.”  She also said the bill was not a “prudent use of tax dollars.”

“It’s an extravagant waste at this point in time,” Bird said. “There are needs everywhere. Bike paths are not needs.” 

Smythe and Dolan took issue with some of the speakers’ contentions.  Dolan said the bill was never meant to “put bike paths or sidewalks along every county road.”

“If it costs too much money to put it in, we won’t put it in,” Dolan said.

And Smythe said that federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration have recommending incorporating bicycle and pedestrian features into projects. She also said that university representatives, disability groups and elected officials had expressed support for the proposal. 

“So in our minds, this has already been decided on a federal level by transportation professionals,” she said. “And we support their guidance.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.