St. Louis: Where Speed Bumps are a Political Weapon

Tower Grove speed bump
{what do speed bumps in Tower Grove Park mean for North St. Louis?}

For those actually interested in the issue of speed bumps in the City of St. Louis, the back and forth between Mayor Francis Slay and 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French, ostensibly about speed bumps, has told you nothing. Are they an effective means of traffic calming and public safety? Can they, in fact, be installed in O'Fallon Park as they have been in Tower Grove and Forest Parks?

Why are we even talking about speed bumps? French introduced a bill that read: "BE IT ORDAINED BY THE CITY OF ST. LOUIS AS FOLLOWS: SECTION ONE. There is hereby established traffic calming speed bumps to be installed at various locations in O’Fallon Park." And that's it. The bill passed 15-9 in the 28-member Board of Aldermen. The mayor then vetoed the bill and French doesn't have the 20 votes to override this action.

Why was the bill introduced? Public safety says French. He oversaw the installation of a jogging path in O'Fallon Park this past year and jogs there often himself. According to comments he made previously to the RFT, two sections of the running trail cross a wide road in the park. Why was the bill vetoed by the mayor? In his veto notice (full document below), the mayor states, "My disapproval is based primarily on the attached City Counselor's opinion." Slay expanded on his reasoning in a recent post on his blog.

What did the City Counselor have to say? Assistant City Council Daniel Emerson surmised that it isn't legal for the city to place speed bumps in the public right-of-way. The opinion was based on two state statues: 229.030 stating "Public roads shall be cleared of all obstructions therein that hinder or interfere with travel or traffic thereon…" and 304.120 which outlines municipal responsibilities regarding liability and lists eight regulations municipalities may introduce by ordinance.

Municipalities, by ordinance, may:

  1. Make additional rules of the road or traffic regulations to meet their needs and traffic conditions;
  2. Establish one-way streets and provide for the regulation of vehicles thereon;
  3. Require vehicles to stop before crossing certain designated streets and boulevards;
  4. Limit the use of certain designated streets and boulevards to passenger vehicles;
  5. Prohibit the use of certain designated streets to vehicles with metal tires, or solid rubber tires;
  6. Regulate the parking of vehicles on streets by the installation of parking meters for limiting the time of parking and exacting a free therefor or by the adoption of any other regulatory method that is reasonable and practical, and prohibit or control left-hand turns of vehicles;
  7. Require the use of signaling devices on all motor vehicles; and
  8. Prohibit sound producing warning devices, except horns directed forward.

The legal opinion takes these two together and concludes: "Reading 229.030 and 304.120 in harmony, since speed bumps are not explicitly permitted in 304.120, they logically fall under the category of prohibited obstructions in 229.030. The opinion notes, however, that barricading streets is permissible under Missouri law in some circumstances.

This legal opinion is a flat out farce, ridiculous on its face. Mr. French might as well have been making a left turn on a bicycle with solid rubber tires onto a prohibited boulevard while blaring a backwards facing oogah horn. Speed bumps very clearly fall under "additional rules of the road and traffic regulations to meet their needs and traffic conditions." To conclude otherwise would mean all speed bumps installed by a municipality in the state of Missouri violate the law. There is also no reasonable way to conclude, using this argument, that barricading streets across the city is fine, but a speed bump is not.

Just because they are legal, doesn't mean that speed bumps are a good idea. Why does the City of St. Louis oppose speed bumps? The streets department cites liability issues. If not strictly liable for damage to private property (cars) due to speed bumps if proper signage is offered, the threat and complaints that would ensue constitute at least an understandable objection. Speed bumps are also not cheap. Installation and maintenance in several locations in O'Fallon Park could easily cost the city $20,000 or more.

And then there's precedent. The city has never passed an ordinance to install speed bumps, nor has the city ever paid to have speed bumps installed. French cites both Forest Park at the south entrance to the St. Louis Zoo and Tower Grove Park as evidence that the mayor's stance is "…unfair and it's just disrespectful to the people of north St. Louis." Back to the political bludgeon.

If the issue is public safety, then public safety should be discussed. If the issue is speed bumps for public safety, then speed bumps should be discussed. In this case, Alderman French asked the city to break with longstanding city management of streets and parks and spend thousands to install speed bumps in O'Fallon Park. His reaction to the mayor's veto is pure politics.

French hammers the mayor on wholly unrelated issues, relaying speed bumps (a basic public safety device) to the city's routine "most dangerous" label (due to rapes, murders and muggings) and on to the Mayor citing (accurately) that relatively small pockets of the city skew crime stats. It doesn't necessary follow that French is wrong on these issues, only that he's using the speed bump bill as a political bludgeon. 

For more background, the speed bumps at the St. Louis Zoo entrance were installed as an outcome of a comprehensive traffic planning process. Nearly 3,000,000 people visit the zoo each year. It's likely fair to guess that half use the south entrance. That's an average of 4,000 per day (the average per day attendance in summer is much higher). Crossing guards were used before a new pedestrian bridge was built. And the zoo paid to install the speed bumps. No speed bumps exist at the dozens of street crossings along the heavily used dual-use path throughout the park. Cobblestone rumble strips are used in several locations, as they are in the Tower Grove South and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods. These have been the city's preferred alternative to speed bumps.

Tower Grove Park is administered by a Board of Commissioners at the direction of Henry Shaw and an 1867 state statute. The rules and regulations put forth by this group include everything from exactly where stop signs shall be placed in the park, to the regulation of metal detectors and playing horseshoes. Maintenance of Tower Grove Park largely relies on the fundraising of the non-profit Friends of Tower Grove Park.

There appears to be no reason that speed bumps cannot be installed in O'Fallon Park, only an opinion that they cannot be installed by city ordinance. Will French find another way to serve public safety? Will he work with the city streets department to find another solution?

So what's the real story here? It's probably use of speed bumps as a proxy for airing all the north-south political grievances in St. Louis. Again in the RFT, French is quoted as saying: "This is just the latest example of how this man's office does not take public safety in north St. Louis seriously…" "He needs to spend his time dealing with the city's real problems, like jobs, murders, crime rates — instead of wasting people's time and spending energy and political capital on things like speed bumps or stray rescue or Del Taco." "His twitter feed reads like a teenage girl's look at the world."

For the mayor's part, he made it clear on his blog that beyond his veto, he looked down on this bill: "Today, I vetoed an odd little bill that would have paid for the installation of speed bumps in one of the city’s 105 parks."

Did French offer an "odd little bill" to pick a fight? Did the mayor use his veto to send a personal message and swat an upstart political rival? What were we talking about again?

Speed Bumps in O'Fallon Park_BB43

Speed Bumps in O'Fallon Park_BB 43 Veto Letter and Attachments

UPDATE 8/31/11

The speed bump saga didn't end with the story above. At some point after the Mayor vetoed French's bill and before the end of August, the speed bumps at the north entrance to the St. Louis Zoo were quitely removed by the City of St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch picked up on this and asked around. It turns out that City of St. Louis Parks Director Gary Bess stated the speed bumps were removed at least in part due to the dust up over O'Fallon Park. Apparently, if speed bumps are in fact illegal in the state of Missouri as the Mayor's office ludicrously asserts, these just had to go.

These particular speed bumps were installed after a child was hit and killed crossing the road to enter the zoo. Since then, the entrance has been completely redesigned and a pedestrian bridge carries those using the south parking lot across the busy park road. But many still use the crosswalk and what happens if another child is hit? Are we to assume that the many speed bumps in Tower Grove Park will remain? While there are no winners in this issue, the fight for the bottom may just have a new leader.