Concerns about cost raised by officials on Complete Streets bill

Committee meeting requested by Erby to learn more

By Gloria Lloyd

Legislation that could change the face of county roads by adding bike lanes was placed on hold by the County Council after county officials raised concerns about the cost.

The proposed Complete Streets ordinance is similar to measures that have passed across the country and calls for the county to add bike lanes, traffic signals and wheelchair-accessible curbs, among other improvements, whenever it makes changes to a county road.

Heavily supported by the nonprofit organization Trailnet, the bill is co-sponsored by 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City.

In light of questions about how much it will cost, Dolan held the bill again at last week’s council meeting. For the fourth straight week, a line of county residents filed in to speak for and against the bill.

Under Complete Streets policies, planners elevate the interests of pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit riders to the same consideration as drivers when building streets.

Opposition to the Complete Streets legislation mostly centers on potential cost, although some county cyclists said they prefer bikes to be part of routine traffic lanes.

Residents who support the bill point to the health benefits that could be gained if more people are able to bike or walk alongside county roads.

Jennifer Chan said she just moved from New York City with her three children last summer and wants St. Louis to emulate her former city and get more kids biking and walking to school.

“Our Mayor (Mike) Bloomberg did a fabulous job in creating more bike lanes for a healthier New York,” she said. “I guess we want to make a healthier St. Louis.”

As proposed, the bill would require that the county “equally promote access, mobility and health for all users … including pedestrians, bicyclists, users of mass transit, people of all ages and abilities, motorists, emergency responders, freight providers and adjacent land users.”

In general, that will mean more bike lanes and sidewalks on county roads, but how many and for how much is up for debate, County Executive Charlie Dooley said.

The actual cost to implement the measure hinges on what exactly the bill requires the county to do, but county officials and Complete Streets advocates dispute the other side’s interpretation of the bill’s requirements.

To clear things up, bill co-sponsor Erby requested a Committee of the Whole meeting be held in January to learn more about the bill, clear up the competing claims and hear from all those involved.

Dolan plans to meet with some of the groups opposed after the holidays to address the cost and safety concerns that are holding up the bill.

The county already embraces some aspects of the Complete Streets philosophy and adds sidewalks and access for the disabled whenever it can in new projects, said David Wrone, spokesman for the county Department of Highways and Traffic. But county officials are worried about being locked into building bike lanes on all 3,100 miles of county roads, at a cost of more than $1 billion, he added.

The city of St. Louis adopted the policy in 2009, and some roads have been narrowed from two lanes each way to one to make room for bike lanes.

The bill states the county “shall implement and create a system” connecting county roads with Great Rivers Greenway trails, transit stations, learning institutions, civic centers “and other high visitation facilities.”

Department of Highways and Traffic officials interpret those clauses to mean that every county road would have to be retrofitted with bike lanes, with few exceptions — and disregarding the costs involved.

Using the same techniques they regularly use to project the costs of road projects, county highway engineers estimate it would cost more than $300 million to retrofit just 15 percent of county roads with bike lanes.

“Our perception of the bill is that it would in fact require substantial financial outlays,” Wrone said. “And those outlays are, as we’ve said, very concerning … We are concerned about the financial unknowns of the bill, which is why we communicated them publicly.”

Dolan and Trailnet, however, dispute the engineers’ figure, saying the bill would only require that the county adapt roads as money allows, during existing construction or improvement projects.

The bill calls for implementing bike lanes on a “street-by-street, case-by-case basis, wherever it makes sense,” Dolan said, noting that if the county did not have the money to build a bike lane or add a sidewalk during a road project, it would not have to.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” he said. “Ultimately, if (the county) doesn’t want to OK the money spent on the roadway, they have the right to turn that down.”

The bill is not a mandate for the county to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, Dolan added.

“The numbers out there are totally false,” he said. “Millions and billions of dollars, that’s never been the intention. Everybody knows that.”

The city of St. Louis has seen no added costs from Complete Streets, and due to the recession, road budgets have actually declined in the years since the city began implementing the incremental improvements, 24th Ward Alderman Scott Ogilvie said.

“These things don’t automatically increase costs to road departments,” Ogilvie said. “If there are increased costs, we strongly feel they are more than offset by increased safety and quality of life.”

Under the bill, exceptions to Complete Streets would have to be documented with data and “may be considered for approval when … the cost is excessively disproportionate to the need or future use,” or “Other available means or factors indicate an absence of need, including future need.”

The data-based evidence requirement for exceptions does not add much to the county’s costs, since county engineers would be doing the work of planning the road project anyway, Dolan said.

Although Dolan said he had met with the highway department about the bill “numerous times,” Wrone said Dolan had not met with the department since it developed its cost estimates.

“There’s not been a dialogue,” Wrone said. “I’m wondering how many staff highway engineers he has developing figures. I would say the answer to that would be none. Trailnet’s got a dietitian — maybe that’s where his expertise comes from.”