Highways for Habitats #22: South County Connector, St. Louis

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

In 1957 outside St. Louis plans for an “inner belt expressway” developed and the northern portion was eventually built (I-170).  In the 1990s the southern portion plans were abandoned due to strong local opposition, yet the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and St. Louis County continued efforts to provide a connective element in its place.  Their solution is the South County Connector, and its purpose is to improve connectivity between south St. Louis County, the City of St. Louis, and central St. Louis County, and improve access to Interstates 44, 64, 55, and 170.

The County says the main reason for the Connector is to ease traffic congestion on the streets through increased capacity – a new highway.  Traffic studies say the Connector would reduce traffic compared to a 2040 projection.  Proponents say this will improve vehicular safety.  Opponents believe, however, that the project simply shifts auto traffic from one road to another through the phenomenon of induced demand.

To counter the idea that traffic reduction is a sufficient reason to build the Connector, opponents make the argument that the traffic study was done in 2003 and much has changed.  Automobile use in the U.S. has been on the decline since 2005 and in St. Louis County it dropped 4.5% between 2007 and 2011 (more than the national average).

St. Louis has been addressing these changing trends well: they have expanded their public transit system to meet the growing demand.  An accurate traffic study should take these changes into account, and the outdated 2003 study does not.  Advocates also worry that the highway will weaken the effectiveness of the regional investments in alternative transit already made, creating barriers to further multi-modal development.

As the debate continues, citizen groups and non-profits have come together with many elected officials to end the plan, advocating instead that multi-modal alternatives are the right investment for the future.  Organizations like Trailnet, which advocates for healthy and active communities through promotion of walking and biking, have expressed concern with the project – stating a lack of pedestrian and bicycle systems in the plan.

Opponents believe the estimated $110 million needed for the project would be better spent improving alternative transportation systems – something seeing record demand in the region.  In 1993 St. Louis’ light rail transit system – MetroLink – opened, and has been expanding since; coupled with an extensive bus system they have become a competitive alternative to automobile travel.  Many believe there are alternative travel options that connect the elements the South County Connector is intended to already in place – like the Cross County Light Rail Extension and the MetroLink Blue Line – which make the Connector duplicative and unnecessary.

Opponents also point to the disconnect highways create in the neighborhoods they cut through, dividing and segregating communities.  Residents of affected communities worry that businesses would suffer, navigating traffic right past instead of through.

Managing the many demands our roads serve is a challenging task.  Safely moving people and goods, supporting economic growth, connecting communities without disconnecting others, and providing a comprehensive transportation system to support various methods of mobility are needs that can be difficult to balance.  We hope the St. Louis region finds the right solution for their needs.