When the DOT Plans Your City

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VMT welcome to stl

The City of St. Louis doesn’t have a plan. Well, technically the city does have a comprehensive plan, dating from 1948. That’s not quite fair. Although there has been no new comprehensive plan in 66 years, plenty of planning, zoning overlays, street projects, and more have taken place. There’s even a 260 page encyclopedic sustainability plan that’s spawned an initial 29 priorities across seven categories sufficiently vague and unambitious as to be meaningless. The point is that the city doesn’t have a focused plan to direct urban development. It most surely doesn’t have an operational transportation plan.

If you don’t make plans for yourself, someone else will. This is no small point for a city. Private-public partnerships and collaboration across political lines are all the rage, but in order for those to work a city must know itself, have a self-identity. St. Louis doesn’t. Why, is a topic worthy of a treatise, or two. Regardless of the cause, the result can be tragic.

State Departments of Transportation are uniquely positioned to thrive in such a vacuum. The DOT has lobbyists, maybe not their own (OK, they lobby too), but the asphalt guys, the construction guys, the roadbuilders. Politicians of all stripes love “shovel-ready” projects and the instant, if fleeting, jobs they bring. There are massive amounts of federal funds, even if today they’re less than before, and millions in state money. Municipalities are pushed to acquiesce to some amorphous regional plan. After all, building stuff is progress.

At the federal level, funding shouldn’t be a gift to state DOTs, but rather a competitive process joined by civic groups and municipalities that prioritizes what communities believe will be economically sustainable projects. A DOT, meaning department of highways, should have to compete with all forms of transportation based on return on investment. We know that cities are the most efficient drivers of the American economy. They should have more autonomy in transportation planning.

Individuals feel vastly under equipped to comment on Level of Service (LOS), traffic through put, turning radii, and other transportation jargon. Leave it to the experts. And why not? Some projects require public meetings or hearings, but these are obtuse events that only transportation wonks can stomach, and they’re ignored. If and when individuals do speak up, they’re labeled NIMBYs and told their desire for a great quality of life is superseded by the absolute need to move more cars further and faster.

To the extent that professions possess expertise, DOTs, or in most cases Departments of Highways, are experts at building stuff. Traffic predictions, for a long period following World War II somewhat predictable, have become nothing more precise than a Tarot reading. Traffic predictions themselves however, are rather, predictable. Yet Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) has been declining in the US since 2006. For the St. Louis metro area, 2011 VMT was less than the 1996 total.

VMT2

With flat population growth and VMT per capita dropping, St. Louis saw fewer miles driven than 18 years prior. VMT has decreased more than 10% across the St. Louis region since its peak in 2004. For those wondering, the Great Recession didn’t begin until the end of 2008. Research indicates no correlation between gas prices and VMT either. Best guesses for the decrease include a younger generation that values Internet connectivity and an urban lifestyle (this is everyone’s favorite because it’s fun to guess if it’s a fad and predict changes as individuals age and have children), and an aging Boomer population that will drive less and less until they die (that’s not as much fun). In fact, the later will have the greatest impact on VMT in the US for a couple decades to come (and they very well may not be replaced).

We’re still going to drive on highways in big numbers, that’s not in doubt. But given falling, or shall we be generous and say “flat” VMT, any project predicated on greater future traffic should be reconsidered. Furthermore, the even greater decline in per capita VMT means that traffic predictions adding population growth at a constant per capita VMT should be reconstructed.

And why not? We’re in a highway funding crisis right? That’s what we’re told. We’re being offered dire predictions of economic stagnation, population decline, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! But we’re in luck. In Missouri, a “one-cent tax” will save us. Actually it’s a 1% sales tax that is predicted to generate $8B over 10 years.

What that $8B would fund hasn’t been determined, but no one in their right mind would bet against quite a few new highway lane miles. Today, Kansas City and St. Louis  have the most highway lane miles per capita of any cities in the nation. How has that worked for those two cities and the state of Missouri? How about the urban cores specifically?

HMPP

For the urban core especially, population and economic strength has been in decline. Luckily MoDOT thinks they know why. From a 2008 project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS):

The core of the St. Louis region needs a functional roadway infrastructure to be able to compete with other regional economies. With mounting congestion and with more crashes, downtown St. Louis and East St. Louis will not be able to sustain new growth and development.

What a positive message. Reminds me of Keep Cleveland Strong. We need more highways or else “we will not be able to sustain new growth and development”. One transportation infrastructure development completely dominates the last half century in St. Louis – urban Interstates. How has that worked for St. Louis? What growth and development are we grappling to sustain? Perhaps the city is just one more bridge, or two more highway lanes, or three more Interstate ramps from success. What’s dangerous is that MoDOT purports to derive its policy statements from factual information. From that same EIS:

The City of St. Louis has lost much of its resident population. The City of St. Louis’ total population is now barely one-third of its post-World War II high. Only seven of the nation’s 35 largest regions are sprawling at a faster rate than St. Louis, and yet all but six of them are growing faster in population than St. Louis. 

The conclusion? A few more highways ought to do the trick! It’s simply stunning to consider the ahistoric leaps in logic. Your city’s gaining population? Build more roads. People are driving more? Build more roads. Your city is losing population? Build more roads. And this in a city with 25% of its population without access to a car, and nearly 30% of its residents living in poverty (defined as annual income of less than $23,850 for a family of four). The average annual cost of owning a car? More than $7,000.

And yet we build. The $700M Stan Musial Bridge just opened to carry I-70 across the Mississippi River, meant to relieve traffic congestion on the Poplar Street Bridge, which continues to carry I-55 and I-64. MoDOT says that’s just a piece of the larger pie. About $27M is going into reversing ramps, putting a one-block lid over I-70 and removing downtown streets as part of the CityArchRiver project. Another $100M plus project will reconfigure I-55 and I-70 ramps to I-64 in downtown, add a traffic lane to east bound I-64 and slide the Poplar Street Bridge over to a add a fifth east bound lane across the river.

When a city defers its self-identity to highway building, you get highways. At some point, residents of the city must understand and speak to their own interests. This type of destructive and wasteful development isn’t any city’s fate, it’s a choice. And if a choice isn’t made, a vision not articulated and fought for? Well, the highway department gets to plan your city.

Give or take a $1B spent in less than decade, economic boom times fueled by zero traffic congestion should be right around the corner for St. Louis. The past 20 years of highway building in St. Louis has resulted in less congestion and longer average commutes, meaning St. Louis drivers spend more time overall in their cars, but less time sitting in congested traffic. Is this what we get for billions of dollars in highways? We’re sprawling faster, spending more time in our cars, and growing slower, even MoDOT knows this. Fighting congestion to produce economic development is idiotic, and also demonstrably wrong.

And what would happen if the latest downtown highway ramp project wasn’t undertaken? From MoDOT, “If we do not do it now, $30 million of Mo. State interstate funds will leave the region and go to the next highest statewide priority, and it will not return for this project.” A lesser project? “The cost to replace the bridges as they are today will be $42 million, and we will live with the traffic congestion for the next 40 years.” Forty years of congestion?! Must have pulled the Tower Tarot.

What kind of city do we want, regardless of economic development promises (guesses)? The policies of the past 60 years have failed St. Louis and cities like it. The absence of an urban political lobby, and highly fractured government, has ceded policymaking to highway engineers and their enablers. When politics does trump highway planning, MoDOT’s smart proposal is vetoed by a county executive representing 3% of traffic on a bridge.

Both encouraging and depressing is that St. Louis knows better. The East West Gateway Metropolitan Planning Organization produces high quality, smart analysis – which is promptly ignored. The council is directed by the executives of seven core metro area counties, and functions similar to how the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council operate. That is to say inefficiently and ineffectively.

VMT

Yet the East West Gateway staff continues to churn out actionable reports, recently concluding VMT in St. Louis will likely remain flat. The report, Trends in Regional Traffic Volumes – Signs of Change, recognizes that female labor force participation rates have stabilized (it has greatly increased over the past few decades, adding drivers to the roads), the working-age population is likely to decline in absolute terms over the next decade, the number of two-parent households with children is declining, and car ownership rates are not likely to rise dramatically in the future.

So how does MoDOT justify hundreds of millions in new urban highway projects? “We are following through with the commitment which will eliminate almost all of the congestion downtown.” Excellent. And bring economic prosperity too, right? Right?!

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  • Adam

    Really great piece, Alex. This needs to be printed in the PD and elsewhere. One of the most striking things, to me, is that MODot builds stuff not because it’s needed or wanted but because if they don’t use the money it goes elsewhere. Basically, MODoT’s #1 priority is to preserve itself. It’s a broken, cannibalistic institution that needs a ground-up overhaul.

    • Thomas R Shrout Jr

      Might also need to fix the two engineering schools in MO. My evidence is the values their graduates exhibit when they go to work at MODOT after graduation.

    • Luftmentsch

      Amen!

  • http://www.gatewaystreets.org/ Herbie Markwort

    I’m loving this quote from Patrick Kennedy:

    WalkableDFW
    It’s easy to understand highways as horizontal barriers. Hidden is their pernicious ability to disconnect the same direction they link.
    4/29/14, 7:13 PM

  • T-Leb

    These folks, http://www.fredweberinc.com/ and these folks http://www.stuppbridge.com/ have lobbyists. What do folks wanting alternatives have? Blogs are great, but won’t achieve any type of social change significant enough to change things. What’s next?

    • rgbose

      Why do they care what they build as long as they get to build something? Is it just what they’re used to?

      • T-Leb

        I think they want the projects to get bigger and bigger, so need to draw from bigger and bigger pot of $$… big projects = big profit.

        • rgbose

          Quickest way to more work I guess. N-S Metrolink would be a big project, so would a new rail bridge over the Mississippi, or HSR to CHI or KCY, but those are far off meanwhile MoDOT has projects in the pipeline like I-70 rebuild and North Co I-270 rebuild. Metro should have started getting N-S line to shovel ready stage after the Metro tax passed, alas we get faux BRT.

          • John R

            Does Metro even want more Metrolink? I’m not so sure.

          • T-Leb

            Getting outsold by entrenched businesses wanting to do projects that are in their wheelhouse.

  • matthb

    Let’s stop calling it a $0.01 or 1% sales tax increase. Call it what it is… a 24% sales tax increase. Currently if you buy $25,000 worth of stuff you are paying about $1,050 worth of state sales taxes, the additional 1% will increase that amount by $250. As a percentage of income the people paying the most will be those without cars and living below the poverty line. Who will pay NOTHING? Out of state trucking companies that do a significant amount of damage to our most expensive roads and bridges. This is worse than a regressive tax.

    • T-Leb

      This shift to sales tax has it’s champions… kind of a libertarian wet dream. A certain billionaire doesn’t want to pay taxes and would rather see locals sales taxes pay for things instead of drawing from a state income tax… this is happening.

    • Brian

      I really like changing the terms of the debate from being a 1% sales tax with a sunset provision, to a 24% sales tax increase. That is worthy of Grover Norquist and his ilk (who recast inheritance taxes as death taxes, and capital gains taxes as double taxation). Time for us to adopt these tactics to fight this method of funding the highway industrial complex. Why should we make our sales tax among the highest in the nation when a 10-cent/gallon tax increase on gasoline would merely move us from 6th lowest in the nation to the middle of the pack as far as state fuel taxes go? It’s a user fee, plain and simple: you use the roads, you pay the freight. That should also be a libertarian wet dream.

  • dempster holland

    I would be interestedto know the methodology in measuring Vehicle Miles
    Traveled. I would be surprised if a ten per cent decrease could be
    attributed to stabilization of female labor force participation ( a stay at
    home mom may drive more each day than one restricted to her workforce)
    and young people not driving cars (a very small per cent ride bikes, walk
    or take buses). How does DOT do the measurement? Would have to be
    some kind of sampling or extrapolation from gasoline sales.

    • Alex Ihnen

      You can check the East West Gateway report linked to above (Trends in Regional Traffic Volume). It was the starting point for VMT data. In general, numbers come from the FWHA. VMT is generally calculated like this: “VMT is calculated by multiplying the amount of daily traffic on a roadway segment by the length of the segment, then summing all the segments’ VMT to give you a total for the geographical area of concern.”

      • dempster holland

        The east-west study referenced by you does not discuss the
        methodology for calculating VMT. The definition cited by you
        can calculate the VMT for a given segment of roadway.
        However, to calculate total traffic volume in a metropolitan area
        one would have to do such calculations on every street and
        road in the metropolitan area. I doubt if that has ever been done.
        So the calculation of VMT must be by some other method

        • Alex Ihnen

          You can search for how VMT is measured – it’s just as stated above. Basic road usage is calculated the same way – a measurement is taken over a week or so and is extrapolated over a year, or presented as an average per day count. No one will ever do such calculations on every street and road in a Metro area, but that’s OK. Using math and statistics, we can infer results. It’s the same thing the Census does, as well as public opinion polling, etc. Additionally, while any single data point has a reasonable margin of error, using the same measurement over a long period of time accurately reveals trends.

        • matthb

          Every road is mapped, in a database and has a “service level” capacity. Traffic counts on a sampling of roads at various service levels can then be extrapolated over whole map.

          EXACT counts are less important then trends over time and comparisons to other cities. As long as the methodology is consistent, the trends and comparisons will be meaningful.

          • dempster holland

            Several references under a goggle of “vehicle Miles traveled”
            indicate that the estimates for the “local road” category are
            not very accurate. One study suggests the local road usage
            is simply assumed to be 10 to 15 per cent of the total. Another
            points out that traffic count recorders are sufficiently frequent
            on interstates but much less frequent on local roads

  • nikelosm

    Could someone speak about the laws that regulate local transportation systems within the city? What regulations stop, lets say a non profit organization, from helping to fill the void within the transportation infrastructure of the city? If permitted, it seems a non profit could take the lead in creating and organizing transportation means to complement the existing infrastructure.

  • STLEnginerd

    Something that’s been bugging me lately. I have looked into what it would take to road diet Olive Blvd. I had assumed that it would be a matter of building community support in the respective municipality. Based on what I’ve read and heard from local officials is that MODOT essentially has veto power on any proposals relating to Olive Blvd.

    A good example is when a proposal was floated to erect a Chinese sty
    E arch on Olive one of the things that killed it Was MODOT didn’t like the arch over their highway (another issue was lack of residents support)

  • moe

    I’m disagreeing with the “Most Freeway lanes per capita in urban areas” as this fails to take into account the terrain of the location. A chart is easy to look at, but when comparing to the fact that all major highways come through this region as the main crossing of the Mississippi, it’s easy to understand why St. Louis has more highways than some other places such as San Antonio.
    Some areas have high mileage because of the lack of public transport and such or residents moving from one region end to the other , while other areas carry more freight, etc. Then there is the various histories of the areas as well and how they played into highway formulations.
    My point is, that without taking all these factors into account, i.e what are on those miles…an objective view cannot be taken.

    • http://www.gatewaystreets.org/ Herbie Markwort

      No, St. Louis just got carried away building highways. Compare the highway that were originally proposed to what actually got built. http://www.ajfroggie.com/roads/yellowbook/stlouis.jpg

      • Alex Ihnen

        Correct. And while St. Louis is major transportation hub, so are Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. etc. etc. St. Louis simply decided to build more and more highways.

        • dempster holland

          , One difference is that , Boston SF, LA and Chicago
          have half of their hinterland over Water(1/4 for NYC), and therefore cannot have interstates in that direction. St Louis
          on the other hand , has land on all sides and so will have interstates in all directions

          • Alex Ihnen

            Then how to explain greater highway miles in St. Louis than places like Columbus-OH, Indy, Denver, Atlanta, Orlando, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Nashville, Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati…?

            The idea that the highways in St. Louis simply happened because the terrain dictated so has no basis. In fact, locally, portions of the build out were opposed, changed, or stopped. Other places were more successful in fighting against urban freeways. St. Louis was bustling in the 1940s and 50s, and facing massive challenges, when the system was being planned and funded – local leaders were more successful than some other cities is getting federal dollars to build highways. They pitched it as “urban renewal”, as a solution to the slums, and urban challenges writ large. They were wrong. It’s a complex history, and one that was anything but preordained by geography.

          • moe

            That is not what I posted. Terrain played a role. And in analyzing the nature of the highways, it has to be taking into account.

          • dempster holland

            Take them one by one:
            l. Int 44 (the old HW 66) goes from st Louis to Springfield,
            Tulsa etc

            2. Int 55 (comes from Chicago, the northern leg of the
            old 66) then continues south to Cape Gir, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans
            3. Int 64 (goes to Louisville and points east)
            4. HW 40–the only real pre-interstate, goes through
            central west end to skinker, later extended all the way
            west to wentzville.
            5. Int 70–from Indianapolis to st louis to Kansas City.
            originally was the old national road
            6. Outer belt–270, 255 etc. Replaces the old by-
            pass routes (used to take sometimes 30 minutes to get
            through Kirkwood on the old 66 by pass
            7. Inner belt. This was basically locally developed.
            So the question is: which one of the above inter-
            states would you not have built?

          • rgbose

            I wouldn’t have done I-44 thru the city

          • dempster holland

            I forgot to mention two expressways that were not built because
            of community opposition. One went from downtown northwest
            along about Page boulevard. This was the north side
            equivalent to HW 44 and was rejected partly because of its
            heavy adverse impact on African=American neighborhoods.
            The other: north-south connector along 22nd st from I-70
            to II -55 was also rejected, partly for some of the same
            reasons. So apparently the power elite theory of highway
            construction could not prevail against this neighborhood
            and community opposition

          • rgbose

            That was to be I-755. Looks like someone wrote a thesis on it http://books.google.com/books?id=R-mrNwAACAAJ&dq=inauthor:”Darayus+N.+Kolah”&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hqBjU7DbH6PuyAGUsQE&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA

            And there’s extending I-170 to I-44 and 55. And how Richmond Heights blocked widening I-64 during its rebuild. People started to wise-up when they saw the destruction wrought by other projects.

            Page Ave X was controversial and went to a vote. People realized what it was – a way for more people to move out of St. Louis County, undermining it, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Should have had a toll at the very least.

          • dempster holland

            Quick answer on other cities:
            l In the 1950s, St Louis metro area had greater population
            than except possibly Houston
            2. My recollection is that the highways were touted as
            lessening traffic jams in rush-hour. I don’t recall any
            claim that building highways would reduce slums
            3. I don’t think that the influence of local leaders had too
            much effect on the design of the interstate system. It
            although obviously local leaders could effect it on the
            margins

            .

          • http://www.gatewaystreets.org/ Herbie Markwort

            To point #3, I forget where I read it, but apparantly St. Louis leaders wanted I-70 to be routed much closer to the river running east of Bellefontaine and Calvary cemeteries to reduce the impact of the highways on the cities. The feds didn’t like that idea as they wanted to maximize use of the highway.

        • Joe Schmoe

          St. Louis really dropped the ball on not building a subway on at least 2 or 3 chances its had in its urban history. St. Louis would have likely retained much more of its urban core even if it had built it when DC and SF did.

          • Thomas R Shrout Jr

            About $1 billion for a well developed subway/light rail system according to a 1970 study. Gov. Hearnes wanted the state to help build it. Never happened. Subway under Kingshighway was an example.

          • http://www.gatewaystreets.org/ Herbie Markwort

            I think this map is the 1970 study you are referring to.

          • Thomas R Shrout Jr

            The could be it. The study was done by Sverdrup which later was bought by Parson Brinkerhoff. CMT has in its library a copy of the executive summary.

    • dempster holland

      I believe the routing of the interstate highway system was basically
      planned, or at least approved, on the national level. Note that about
      half the cities in the chart above have about half their hinterland on
      water and therefore would not have interstates in that sector, Most
      cities will have interstates in the four prime directions; St Louis has it in
      six. Again, I think it is local geography rather than some grand conspiracy..
      or unusual obsession with highways

  • kuan

    Thanks for the write up, Alex. One question that, I admit, is a little off topic, is in regards to that figure about St. Louis and KC having the most miles of highway per capita. How is that figured measured? That is, what boundaries are used in measuring those figures. I ask because I find it surprising that MO cities top the list. Sure, they have a lot of freeways, but are those figures in particular controlled for aggregate sums of total population in the metropolitan statistical area? if they aren’t they could be just measuring the city itself, which would explain the figure (oversized infrastructure due to population loss). That said, that wouldn’t explain KC. At any rate, some clarification on that would be great, if only for my own curiosity!

    • http://www.gatewaystreets.org/ Herbie Markwort

      Alex likely got his numbers from here who got their numbers from the FHWA (follow the link). Figures are based on the urbanized areas of metro regions. For STL, that’s 2,370 freeway lane miles serving 2.215 million people in 1,359 sq mi.

  • Bryant

    Great article. As a recent citizen of the city, what I’d like to know is what can I do? Who are the decision-makers for these projects and how can I help impact the process?

    • JD

      Decision makers are the Board members of EastWest Gateway Council of Governments, all road projects in the stl metro area is approved by them

      • Thomas R Shrout Jr

        Since they represent all the surrounding counties, they are hard to lobby and don’t take public comment at their meetings.

        • JD

          Every project they approve has a public comment period. 30 day for the annual TIP update and 7 day for TIP amendments

          • Thomas R Shrout Jr

            yes, but they don’t take public comment at their meetings.

  • JD

    My goodness Alex, I mean I know you aren’t a transportation planning or project planning expert but come on at least a little bit of research if you are going to write on it. Nothing in this piece mentions the MPO, who approves projects (the mpo and it’s board who is made up of elected officials ie slay, reed, Dooley ect. ) or moleg forcing (50 years ago) a lot of roads normally handled by county/city on the state DOT, normally not done in other states….very slappy piece overall

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thanks for reading. The article mentions the St. Louis area MPO, East-West Gateway Council of Governments, a couple times. No single article can approach a comprehensive assessment of a state’s transportation planning process, the lobbying and politics that go with it. However, the language used by the DOT here and elsewhere is at best outdated and at worst intentionally dishonest. It most likely simply reflects a profession and bureaucracy that’s stuck in the past and wedded to politics and lobbyists heavily invested in the status quo. Hopefully this is just the start of a larger (and better) conversation about how transportation decisions are made in Missouri.

      • JD

        MPO is not mentioned in the context that it makes project decisions and that it develops a 20 year plan and a 4 year construction schedule for the region.

        Biggest issue is that 99% of the people simply don’t care about the sausage making process aka transportation planning and they don’t get involved. Last year during the public meeting at the CWE library branch for the 2013-2016 TIP, 2 people showed up…one was a CMT person.

        Nobody is building highways for
        the sake of building highways. Few examples of some latest projects….mercy wanted a new
        hQ but wants a wider Bridge over 64, same for the new RCA HQ. Same for monsanto expansion, all wanted highway work around their new HQ. WashU/Barnes wanted a new interchange at cortext, they paid 9m of $18m for the current work on 64. McKee wants 22nd street, he will put money in it ect.

        • rgbose

          I say the Farmington flyovers were highways for the sake of building highways. No way the marginal gain in economic activity over a traffic light intersection covers their cost or long-term maintenance. Less money could have enhanced Farmington in other ways with much higher returns. I’m not families with the challenges they are facing there, but I doubt lack of flyovers was on the top of people’s lists

  • Michael Lewyn

    Florida requires municipalities to have comprehensive plans and requires them to comply with the plans- but their transportation system is just as bad, probably because the municipalities and the state DOT are pretty much on the same page.

  • Joe Sheehan

    Sounds to me like we need to press our local leaders to push back harder at State levels on what our City/County long-term plans and strategy are. Not sure EWGateway Council is necessarily the only button here – or are they? – and if so, do they simply need to just turn up their volume?