St. Louis: Where Speed Bumps are a Political Weapon

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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.

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  • Anonymous

    Having lived in a part of city that doesn’t attract a lot of attention from urban preservationists and/or cool people on Facebook the last three years, I can understand French’s frustrations.  It isn’t just the speed bumps, it’s the way this place functions.  From the fractured recycling dumpster plan, to which streets get paved and which are allowed to decay, to the way some city parks are seemingly paved in Gold, while others are a training ground for the Parks Department chainsaw crew, to which neighbors get fined for missing a 1’x1′ piece of siding on their garage and who is allowed to blatently sell drugs and threaten people because our justice system is inept.
    The number of people frustrated over a fast food building is literally insane.  Meanwhile, I personally have almost been run over by idiots speeding by my house at 45+ mph to shortcut a nearby major intersection.  No joke.  Not sure about your neighborhood, but traffic detail seems to be pretty low priority in mine–especially in the residential streets.  I was in a hit and run a year ago where my wife had the license plate number of the person who hit us; the officer who responded told me in so many words he wasn’t going to pursue the information.  Thank God they did respond quickly to a robbery in progress at my neighbor’s, and caught the guy.But seriously, the audacity of audacities, an Alderman wants a couple of speed bumps to keep people from being run over in his park. He probably wants them because it’s the only way he thinks a speed would be enforced in his park.  Now a bunch of bureacrats are going to argue about whether or not the State says they’re illegal, when they are obviously installed all over the city and county.  Who cares what obscure budget line item or more adequately funded jurisdiction they fell under–can you imagine the Zoo Friends paying for a speed bump in O’Fallon Park, seriously–Slay isn’t saying they cost too much.  He’s saying they’re illegal.  Seems pretty Orwellian to me.I’m in French’s court.  It’s a sad state of affairs when people put so much effort into saving a piece of the already crumbled American dream, when so many real problems are affecting people’s lives.  If you can’t see that, or aren’t aware of it then spend five minutes in a corner of the city that other people are scared of.  Then realize this: other people’s kids live there and go to school there, and they live in broken homes.At least French is trying to be part of the solution.  That’s a lot more than I can say for a lot of people.

    • Alex Ihnen

      It isn’t that there aren’t inequities. There are and they should be shouted about. The issue here is a) disparaging other’s values and beliefs by putting down efforts to save a building. If you follow the issue, the building itself is just part of it, just as the speed bumps themselves are a window into larger issues. Why put down other efforts to make the city a better place? Because those people aren’t fighting your particular fight? Talk about self-defeating. And b) a solution isn’t being sought here. Why not use the exact same solution as is used in Tower Grove South, Forest Park Southeast and all along the incredibly busy Forest Park running trail? No speed bumps there – but the cobblestone rumble strips work very very well. What works in Forest Park should work in O’Fallon Park.

  • Noreply

    St. Louis needs less aldermen and less politics.  French is a publicity hound and he found an issue he could exploit the racial divide.  This is old school politics that most sensible people have left behind for the suburbs.

  • Theresia

    Antonio French needs to get out! People just stop electing him already!

    Who needs speed bumbs anyway, especially in a park where hardly anyone goes to? Aren’t there more pressing issues?

    When I read this, I immediately thought of what you said perfectly, “It’s probably use of speed bumps as a proxy for airing all the north-south political grievances in St. Louis.” And really that’s all it is. It’s a political move against Slay and it didn’t work.

  • Alderman French grandstanded on an issue dealing with speedbumps, acting in a child-like manner unbecoming of his position.  In his words, French:

    1. Divided the city across racial lines by he and his allies pulling the race card in the RFT and St. Louis American.  The issue regards speed bumps, not race.  Please stick to the issue, Mr. French, and stop dividing our city.

    2. Alienated preservationists and Stray Rescue proponents with this red herring quote: “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.”

    3. Called the Mayor a girl.  Whether you like the Mayor or not, is this how our elected representatives should behave? Really?

    Some people see a lot of promise in Antonio French.  He does do a lot for his ward, however his words indicate him to be child-like at times and overly divisive. I hope this is something he can improve upon.
    Alex’ article describes how French can help implement speed bumps or other traffic calming measures to improve O’Fallon Park. I hope he does so, but in a respectable manner.

    And please note that the speedbumps in Forest Park and Tower Grove were neither implemented via city-sponsored bills nor paid for by the public.  So whether or not you approve of the Mayor’s characterization of French’s legislation as an “odd little bill”, this bill did buck precedent and as such can be viewed as irregular or odd.

    • stlzou

      I won’t disagree with you that French’s public reaction over the bill’s veto has been over the top, immature, and not the best tactic for getting things done, but I will say that I don’t think he’s the one who intended to use a speed bump bill to divide the city here. If events played out as the StL American wrote, I can understand his frustration. French has often been publically critical of the Mayor and the status quo, so I wouldn’t be suprised if some tension exists between them.

      As for alienating the preservationists, I don’t think there has been an alderman from the Northside that has done as much for preserving our historic architecture as French has through his block-by-block Rebuiliding Together campaign and in working alongside Landmarks and the Preservation Research Office to get the O’Fallon and Penrose neighborhoods on the National Register.

  • stlzou

    I’m confused why you’d suggest Alderman French might have sought to stir up larger northside-southside tensions with the introduction of something as innoccuous as a speed bump bill. There’s no doubt he’s taken this “fight” there, but it seems like he’s only done so in reaction to some pretty silly political power plays by the Mayor’s office. Maybe I’m naive to how these things work, but I’m having trouble seeing how French could’ve predicted that his speed bump bill would become anything more than a very literal “speed bump” on the BoA agenda. This StL American editorial may have done some dramatizing of the issue here, but it does seem strange to me that typically ironclad tradition of aldermanic courtesy was broken in such strong force over this “odd little bill” put forth by this “upstart politician”.

    • Dan Burton

      came here to say this. It seems like Mayor Slay set Alderman French up to react this way– I don’t mean any sort of “conspiracy,” but I don’t see how else Ald. French could have reacted. It seems like a good way to rally the base in STL is to put a north-side politician in the position of playing the race card.

      Regardless of whether the speed bumps should have passed, Mayor Slay’s behavior makes him seem like the bad guy here. French is just fighting fire with fire. If I were the alderman of a north-side ward, I would be pretty pissed off about seeing so much of the mayor’s attention focused on a flying-saucer taco stand, too.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Exactly how much of the Mayor’s attention has been on “a flying-saucer taco stand”? Aldermanic President Lewis Reed appears to be leading the charge on that front. The question I’ll keep asking is why isn’t the solution used in Forest Park, all along the very busy running trail not good enough for O’Fallon park? An easy, safe, solution is right in front of Mr. French if he would like his constituents to be safer instead of seeking a political fight.

  • gmichaud

    I hate the speed bumps in Tower Grove Park, they are too high for a small car, almost destructive, and on the main East-West road are too close together. I understand the need for traffic calming. Cars have taken over our lives to the point we no longer see reality.
    Still the technical questions, including alternative methods of traffic calming, are not discussed.
    Cars need to be deemphasized and  given a minor or at least equal role in transit/movement systems.

  • Anonymous

    This is why my hopes to live in St. Louis again is in peril. Poor leadership. Has Slay and French sat down to talk over the bill? This is what good leadership does. Maybe the mayor did not explain to the bill’s sponsor why the “odd little bill” was going to be vetoed BEFORE he vetoed it. Then as a leader of the whole city he shoots back to French’s rant by minimizing French’s efforts calling it “an odd little bill”. Patronizing to say the least. To me, that was very immature on Slay’s part. And honestly, French is young and has some learn to do, but Slay has been around long enough to know better. There is no way that if I were mayor that I’d let my reputation be put in question behind “an odd little bill”. While a mayor shouldn’t have to babysit politicians, Slay could have quashed this with better leadership and an olive branch to French.