This post was originally published at nextSTL and is reprinted here with permission. We at Strong Towns really appreciate the work that nextSTL is doing to raise awareness and expand the conversation in the St. Louis area on transportation, land use, finance and other issues we are mutually passionate about
East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) issued its Connected2045 30-year transportation plan for the eight counties it oversees. It says all the right things concerning access, mobility, environment, freight movement, transportation alternatives, supporting neighborhoods and downtown, safety, etc. At the end it lists project priorities- what can be done under current funding streams in ten-year blocks and what would be done if additional funding sources can to be. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
I attended the public meetings at the History Museum that they held to inform the public and get feedback. Every time the crowd was asked, they said maintaining the current road network and expanding Metrolink/transit should be the highest priority.
The feedback received from the public and stakeholders shaped Connected2045 during every phase of its development. The primary message EWG heard from stakeholders and the public was that the region needs to prioritize its limited transportation resources in projects that preserve and maintain its existing infrastructure. Additionally, with regards to system expansion, there was a strong desire to invest in transportation projects that provide an alternative to single-occupancy automobile travel, primarily transit.
The plan recognizes current trends.
Similarly, attracting and retaining young talent is a concern among business leaders in the region. Even though St. Louis is known for its quality higher education options, the “brain drain” of skilled, college-educated students leaving St. Louis significantly affects the quality of the regional labor pool. Investing in alternative transportation options could help reverse this trend in the St. Louis region. An American Planning Association survey found that only eight percent of Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2001) would prefer to live in an auto-dependent suburb. By investing transportation dollars in walkable neighborhoods with bicycle facilities and transit options, St. Louis may encourage more college graduates to stay in the Region.
They highlight the costs of lives lost or ruined by wrecks. That’s 2.26% of regional GDP.
The economic impact of motor vehicle crashes in the St. Louis region alone was estimated at $3.2 billion in 2013.
They recognize the spreading out of the region enabled by our infrastructure spending choices.
From 1950 through 2010 the population of the region grew by less than 50 percent, while the urbanized area more than quadrupled.
And the poor land uses that resulted.
Recent land development patterns have increased the amount of developed land per capita, creating a larger, less dense region, and making those destinations more spread out.
They provide metrics to monitor our progress in reaching the goals of the plan.
One of them is housing + transportation costs. Tying them together is a mistake. The relative fraction of each that stays in the region is important to the local economy. Housing costs (labor to build/maintain it, wealth accrued by local ownership) stay in the region in greater proportion to driving costs (oil not pumped here, raw materials/labor for cars not made here) which largely leave the region.
Needless transportation costs (like enabling longer distance commutes) eat into housing, education, health, etc spending. Average commute distance should be a metric with the goal of reducing it. Shorter commutes need less infrastructure to support them, reducing community costs- lower taxes or taxes available to apply to other needs. Less fuel and vehicle wear and tear reduce costs for the private sector- more money to circulate around the local economy. Same goes for zero-car households by choice. The annual cost of car ownership in the region is $7,804. A household saving that each year and earning 5.25% real return ends up with $1M in 40 years.
Under the safety section, the metrics are obviously number of fatalities and number of disabling injuries. Another metric should be VMT above 25 miles per hour with the goal of reducing it.
With proper goals and metrics to evaluate progress let’s look at how it’s reflected in the priorities and hopes for the next 30 years. Here’s where politics and funding realties factor in.
Maintaining our current road and transit systems are priority one for the next 30 years, reflecting public input.
Glaringly absent from the priority list is the North-South Metrolink alignment. Despite the fact it would contribute positively to the goals of 8 of the 10 guiding principles. It makes the tier 1 illustrative list- meaning we’ll do it if funding comes forth. But that’s an expansion; we said we wanted to maintain.
Next comes a grocery list of highway rebuilds. It becomes clear that there is a a crowding-out effect due to our over-built system. We have so much to take care of that it has outpaced our economy’s ability to maintain/rebuild it. We’ve enabled longer distance commutes, but has that grown our economy? We are house poor.
There’s some build, build, build insanity too. A new stroad in St. Charles County costing $81M. Adding lanes to I-55 in JeffCo for $278M; something St. Louis County should vehemently oppose as it will enable the emptying out of south county. The worst is $600M to relocate IL-3, which surely has no chance of a positive return on investment. How about a Metrolink line to Edwardsville instead? In fact there’s no attempt at an ROI evaluation of any of the projects. Neither in cost to build versus additional economic activity, nor their impact on the metrics to monitor outlined earlier. How are we to know which is a better bet?
Even more atrocious are the dreams under the illustrative sections. Sought for are $3B in new roads in Madison and St. Clair Counties. Fixing up East St. Louis would cost much less and return much more, I’d wager. More lanes for I-270 of course. With ideas like these, we should be very wary of ideas for more transportation funding in Missouri and Illinois.
Missing is anything for air travel. A constant complaint among businesspeople and tourists is the lack of direct flights especially to Europe. There are no subsidies for direct or international flights. Seeding a flight to Europe would cost less than a highway interchange replacement. And if it doesn’t take off financially, we can just quit. It wouldn’t leave yet another piece of infrastructure representing a long-term liability for the region.
Are we looking for the highest return projects for what we can afford? Will these priorities keep St. Louis competitive for the next 30 years? Or will we find ourselves overtaken by places like Salt Lake City? The mistakes of the past are going to hamstring us from changing course in the future. And judging from the projects list this region’s decision-making process is still missing the mark.