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St. Louis County wrestling with Complete Streets legislation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Legislation being considered by the St. Louis County Council would prompt the county’s transportation department to include more pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly elements in road projects.

While groups such as Trailnet are championing the bill, the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic has concerns about the legislation’s potential cost.

At issue is a bill jointly sponsored by Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, and Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City.It would make county transportation department incorporate principles of “Complete Streets” into county transportation projects. The bill defines Complete Streets as measures that allow “pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transportation users of all ages and abilities” to move “safely and comfortably along and across a street.”

Among other things, the bill states that St. Louis County shall “routinely plan, design, operate, and maintain its streets for all users and approach every transportation improvement and project phase as an opportunity to create safer, more accessible streets for all users.” Rhonda Smythe, policy and advocacy manager for Trailnet, said in a recent interview that the bill could prompt county transportation projects to include better lighting, crosswalks, pedestrian signals or bike lanes.

According to the bill, the department would have to ensure that exclusions to the policy are “documented with data indicating the basis for the exception.” A new interdepartmental advisory committee – and an advisory committee with outside groups such as Trailnet and Paraquad – would oversee how some aspects are implemented. The interdepartmental committee would include people from the departments of highways and traffic, planning, health and parks and recreation.

The council delayed a final vote on the bill last week, but Dolan said it could be brought up again at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Earlier in November, Dolan said his bill would not necessarily ensure that the county will “build a bike path next to every road that they work on.” But, he said, when the county’s transportation department starts new road projects, “it’ll be inclusive with the input of these other groups and other agencies.”

“The millennials and the boomers and everybody – it’s a big request on their part to be a more multi-modal region and pedestrian and bike friendly,” Dolan said. “Now all this is in place so they have a guideline, they have collaboration with a bunch of agencies for the future.”

Symthe said the bill isn’t trying to “retrofit to everything.” She pointed to an already-scheduled road resurfacing, which created a good opportunity to “put a bike lane in without breaking the bank.”

“What we had seen with passing the Complete Streets policy in 2010 with St. Louis city was that it really helped improve the infrastructure and the built environment,” she said. “And it helped to create a more walkable and bikeable St. Louis.”

The current bill replaces one that Dolan and Smythe contended didn’t go far enough.

The first bill said the department would “routinely incorporate one or more complete street element into county transportation projects” when the situation is “practicable, economically feasible and maintainable.”

“Once the movement started, they started to understand where we were coming from and started working with us,” Dolan said. “[The department] started drafting a few policies that weren’t acceptable in my opinion and that of the professionals.”

“Ultimately, it came down to the one that we presented,” he added.

For his part, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said he would not have a problem signing Dolan, Stenger and Erby’s bill. He said there would be “more bike paths and more sidewalks than we have today” because of the bill, although he added he didn’t know by how much.

“We’re going to move forward in a very positive way,” Dooley said. “The things that they’re asking for are some of the things that are available on county roads today. Now we only can do what we can do and what we have the resources to do with. At that time, we’ll present to the council and they’ll make a determination.”

Unknown costs?

But the transportation department has raised sharp questions about the legislation’s potential costs.

David Wrone, a spokesman for the highways and transportation department, said his department isn’t opposed “to certain elements of Complete Streets. But he said “not every road in our system is really conducive to the Complete Streets philosophy.”

“That’s just the reality of it,” Wrone said. “And our central issue with the bill is the unknown cost associated with implementing it.”

Some of those expenses, he said, could include land acquisition.

“We have performed on just a small percentage of the bill,” he said. “And those findings were of concern to us, which is why we made them known.”

Symthe though said “the biggest misperception about Complete Streets is that it requires a retrofit of everything that already exists – which is not the case.”

“We provided a fact sheet to the council … that gave solid examples from other communities that already implemented Complete Streets that show that it was a negligible or small cost to make these add-ins as you’re doing regular maintenance or planning a project from the beginning," Symthe said.

In response, Wrone said that “with all due respect, we estimate road project costs for a living,” adding that “there’s certainly that concern there – the financial unknown is of concern to us.” He also said detailing exceptions could add an entire new layer of problems – including potentially requiring the department to add more staff.

“It goes back to our concern about the fiscal unknowns,” Wrone said. “Adding staff at this particular time is something that obviously would cost money and it’s a concern to us.”

But Dolan said last week that documenting exception wouldn’t require additional staff, because the department is “already designing to build as it is – so the work’s already done.”

He also didn’t think the momentum on the bill would stall after the final vote was delayed.

“The people of St. Louis County have spoken very loudly and clearly on what they desire,” Dolan said. “There’s a lot of support for Complete Streets policy. This is not a policy that’s going to overrun the budget. Everything would be done within budget. We can’t spend money we don’t have.

“There’s a lot of checks and balances built into this ordinance,” he added. “It’s not just a mandate for the highway department to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.”

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