Population Down, Poverty Up, St. Louis County Predicts the Future is Highways

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County I-170 sign

On the heels of the City of Louis list of transportation projects it would like to prioritize if the 3/4% sales tax measure passes in August, St. Louis County is out with their wish list. With an aging, declining population, and rising poverty, the County is betting that the future is highways.

Of the anticipated $841M taxpayers would provide to St. Louis County, $12M, or just 1.4% would be transit related. The County, a mix of small communities, inner ring urban suburbs and suburban infill, was virtually built out by 1970.

Leapfrogged by the next ring of counties a couple decades ago, St. Louis County has seen virtually no population growth in 45 years. The 2010 Census showed St. Louis County losing population for the first time since its founding in 1804. Most recent estimates show 12.1% of County residents living in poverty.

The three most prominent goals of the recently passed St. Louis County long term strategic plan, titled “Imagining Tomorrow”, read: “Invest in youth, Prepare for an aging population, Address the consequences and cycle of poverty.” It’s amazing how quickly these easy consensus goals get washed away when the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars suddenly appears.

Aging inner ring suburbs and suburban areas are facing mounting basic infrastructure challenges. From housing stock to sewer and gas lines, to transportation and retail subsidies, these areas are now arriving at their first opportunity to review the past 50 years, and rethink their next 50 years of investment. (Interactive map of poverty in the St. Louis area)

The City of St. Louis released its wish list just yesterday. The balance there is much more oriented toward building a sustainable community with more and better transportation options. The city list could be better, but relatively little is aimed at road projects that belong in the prior century.

Please read the full County project list, but a few of the more incredible items include $195M for Interstate I-170, which the County states, ” is a critical element to revitalizing the inner-ring suburbs”. Somehow the building of I-170 didn’t contribute to the revitalizing of inner ring communities it traverses, such as Kinlock, St. John, Vinitia Park, and Charlack. Perhaps the document is referring to much wealthier communities of Clayton and Ladue, though even there, one shouldn’t conclude that I-170 has added value.

There’s also $30M for a new I-44/Shrewsbury interchange. This is the South County Connector. Inviting, inducing, more traffic at this point would put increasing pressure on streets to the north. The community most directly affected by this larger project is against it. For some reason they don’t want to be “revitalized” or have their streets “improved”.

Further along that corridor, there’s $75M for an arterial street interchange at Manchester and Hanley Roads. Nearby, there’s $45M to “improve capacity/safety” at Brentwood and Manchester. There’s no note indicating for whom capacity and safety would be improved. Another $16M is aimed at Big Bend and Manchester.

In the end, the listed priority projects for St. Louis County read straight from 1960, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the time since then hasn’t been marked by growth and prosperity for much of the county. It’s unconscionable that a county facing significant demographic and economic challenges would prioritize the spending of $841M of its own taxpayers wealth on a dead end future.

The $12M for transit related projects? There’s $4M for a share of an Interstate running Bus Rapid Transit line, and $8M for a share of improvements on West Florissant to support Metro’s other BRT idea. Other non-highway/road money includes $1.5M for Kirkwood Amtrak station, and $4M match for Great Rivers Greenway projects. This leaves $823.5M for roads and highways.

St. Louis County’s Sales Tax Transportation Project Priorities by nextSTL.com

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  • tbatts666

    I am really on the fence about this sales tax increase.

    On the one hand in the short term it may help bike,ped,transit in the region. We will get a good amount of funding for making this city more connected without a car.

    On the other hand the sales tax is going to subsidize and incentivize driving by using more sales taxes to pay for big highway projects. We incentivize demand when we hide the costs of driving long distances in taxes that everyone pay.

    In the long term I think the transportation sales tax will simply the drain the city of it’s residents, by inducing demand for long distance solo driving in the suburbs.

    I think better than a sales tax increase is more user fees to pay for it (tolls, congestion pricing, higher gas taxes, parking fees). This will throttle demand, incentivize low impact transit modes such as carpooling and public tranport, and be equitable.

    • Alex Ihnen

      It will be a tough vote for many people. If you believe that St. Louis should invest in bike/ped/transit infrastructure, tell your elected representative. We can tax ourselves to fund these projects, if our political leadership chooses to.

  • opendorz

    St. Louis County was generally built after the advent of the 2-car household; the city during horse and buggy days. Therefore, the road needs in the county are substantial, and improving intersections like Hanley and Manchester are long past due. Still, I will not vote for a sales tax to pay for road construction.

  • Jim

    Saint Louis County might be falling behind, but Lake Saint Louis certainly seems to be doing well…

  • Jackson

    The final last that is suppose to be out next week according to modot,will be very different from that sans 270 and 70, there is no way modot will do what the county is proposing on Manchester and I-170 or the south county connector.

    • Nathan Bookhout

      I hope your right about the South County Connector

  • STLEnginerd

    This money is earmarked for transportation and is to be spent over the course of the next 10 years or so. To me that means projects that are ready NOW. What “shovel ready” transit projects are on the board for implementation in that time frame. BRT routes that are continually derided by posters here even though they are generally more oriented toward supporting city neighborhood than county ones? The Westport metrolink? They know it a financial loser as well as any one on this board. Is there any credible, significant transit vision out there for St. Louis County.
    Additionally there are very few train, or river traffic infrastructure projects pending that i can think of. Bike pedestrian has several opportunities but not near enough to spend 0.84 billion on…
    The way i see it the county isn’t really ready for transit. The development out here isn’t dense enough to support it. If it was being implemented it would be pouring money into a hole.
    There IS a big failure in the county and that was designed in 30-50 years ago. They didn’t leave room for transit.
    Basically the way i read it St. Louis county doesn’t really need it even though they will be asked to pay a lions share. If they are forced to spend collect the money of course they are going to find ways to use it. The county should vote NO.

  • matimal

    But St. Louis already has far too much road capacity. Traffic is almost never an issue in St. Louis. This isn’t about sustaining current demand for roads, its about building road capacity for which there is and will be no demand. That’s a waste of resources.

    • Mike F


    • Huh?!?

      I don’t know what fantasy world you’re living in, but traffic problems are very real here.

      • matimal


      • Adam

        Traffic “problems” are relative-they will never be “solved” to your liking (i.e. you will never be able to drive from point A to point B at 80 mph without slowing down or seeing another vehicle). There are empirical studies showing that increasing capacity does not mitigate congestion long term. Try visiting a city that has severe traffic to get some perspective.

      • Phil

        Grew up in Saint Louis. Live in Denver.
        Please (try to) drive around Denver in rush hour before you comment again.
        I’ll take Saint Louis rush hour to any of Denver’s driving conditions any day.

  • raccoozie

    So the South County Connector is still happening? The website hasn’t been updated in close to a year. I figured it was dead.

  • JohnThomas52

    St. Louis county is very much a car driving culture so highway and roads will be a priority for those folks. It is definitely in their car driving interest. Driving a car is how most people in the county get around. It’s their habit and nature from having done it for decades. They simply don’t use metro link or bus. Even going in to downtown, it doesn’t make sense to drive from West county to one of the metro link stations, say Shrewsbury, park the car and walk up the platform to wait for metro link. Had one stayed in one’s car and continued on driving to downtown, one could get there in about the same time, if not better. Most older folks probably prefer driving a car if that’s what they have been doing for decades. What’s going to work for an aging population if they are the majority population in the county? That’s the important question to address. How will their needs be met? Can they stand outside in 20 degree or 92 degree temperatures and wait for a public bus or walk up the platform and wait for metro link train? We might have self-driving cars in a decade so it would be feasible for them to get into a car and tell the car where to take them.

    Diverting more funds to public transportation sounds good for young folk but St. Louis has a large, older population in the county, and they are only going to get older. Many old folk will probably stay in their suburban homes until their 90s. The future of St. Louis county is going to be very, very geriatric. Check out some of the neighborhoods. It’s like we now have retirement neighborhoods. This is how St. Louis could market itself to draw in newcomers to the area to stop the vanishing population problem. We could sell STL county as a retirement city for retirees in coastal areas who want to live on the cheap in suburbia in STL county. Play to our strength or work with what we have here (however you see it), namely old folk in an old city with old infrastructure.

    • jhoff1257

      I used to drive from Chesterfield to Brentwood and ride Metro the rest of the way Downtown all the time. I have an app on my phone that tells me exactly when the train will show up so I can park and walk right on without waiting much at all. Plus no traffic, parking fees and hassle.

      The fact that St. Louis has a large aging population (though not much different from any other large city) should signal an increased need for public transit. As many of them age and start having more heath issues they have to stop driving. This happened with my grandparents. Worst part? Once some of these people lose the ability to drive they don’t have a way to get to the supermarket, the pharmacy, the doctor, etc. They need denser and walkable communities with good public transit to get them where they need to go. Many will continue to drive and that’s fine, but you can’t ignore the ones who will eventually lose their mobility. What is your plan for them?

      And if you think St. Louis’ strengths are suburbs with old people in an old city, you don’t know St. Louis all that well. We should be selling ourselves to everyone, whether it be young professionals or baby boomers looking for a quiet place to retire. We can offer something for everyone and it would be foolish to cater to an aging population of retirees that don’t contribute all that much anymore from an economic standpoint. We need people coming here that are working full time, creating businesses and rebuilding neighborhoods. Older retirees don’t really do those things anymore. They’re welcome to come here but to bet our future on them is just plain dumb.

      • JohnThomas52

        Google will soon produce self-driving cars. A person can hop into a car and simply tell the car the location one wants to get to. Leave the driving to the smart car to bring the older person to the pharmacy or grocery store.

        Older folks pay property taxes and sales taxes just like everybody else. They do contribute to society and can be very good citizens. I see older folks as valuable to society and we will all age. Our time is a coming. There’s nothing wrong with making the show-me-state as the “retirement state” or making St. Louis county a large “retirement county”. There are businesses that can be made from this demographic group. We can work with what we have and market accordingly.

        As for Missouri’s economy, it’s just not a place where young people want to live and start businesses. Take a look at this recent article and economic report. The future does not look good for attracting young professionals. Again, we should work with what we have here in St. Louis county–large numbers of retirees and more to come in a decade or so. It is what it is and we have to deal with that reality.



        • John R

          Interesting theory on trying to position suburbia as a retirement destination, but that is pretty destined to fail. Active seniors want amenities and activities. Places like the Ozarks and Columbia have much more appeal for retirees interested in Missouri.

          • tpekren

            Understand, but those choices will be limited to smaller percentage of the aging population for those who can actually afford it. I think their is a very valid financial and economic reasons why most of the aging population in the county will stay in their home as long as they can just as my dad is doing himself in a small Minnesota farm town. Because they are on fixed income, most of them own their home outright reducing cost of living and share of taxes have ceilings to protect them from increases. The house I own in Shrewsbury is a classic of neighborhood that has a large number of retired people on the street. When it costs you very little to life in your own home, why change?
            I’m stuck with how you address this issue, aging population staying in single residential units built for auto.mobile is difficult for transit planning and believe it kills the ridership numbers for which you need for viable fixed transit investment. That is a legitimate problem in the county and throwing millions out a Westport Line doesn’t make sense when a decent BRT could probably facilitate the transit needs of workers along Page. Personally, I would extend the current metrolink lines in the county and leave it at that, or maybe extend Cross County to I55 and build the link up I170 to the existing line to the airport. Then you have South County having direct metrolink access to Clayton and Lambert.
            Which gets me to the only viable option in my mind for both the city and county as a whole, build streetcars in the city on the proposed BRT routes with a plan to extend the streetcars into south city where you have population density. BRT in the county can make use of the streetcar ROW to facilitate routes into downtown. In other words, BRT in the county and a shared Street Car/BRT ROW in the city. It could probably be funded and built in the near future instead of waiting for the dream of the county dropping Westport to put all the money into a N-S metrolink line

    • Joe Schmoe

      I hear what your saying, but smart cities plan for the future (millennial, gen X) not people that have maybe another 20 years on this earth.

    • STLExplorer

      I’m currently in Warsaw Poland and have been using the tram and bus system alongside people in their 80s and dependent on canes and walkers who are probably much happier walking and dealing with the weather than they would be confined to a nursing home or endangering the lives of everyone else on the road because they needed to drive to get around. We need to build alternative transportation infrastructure rather than sticking with the self fulfilling prophecy that it doesn’t mesh well with our region’s lifestyle therefore we should double down on our unsustainable “stroad” strategy.

  • MiguelTejada82

    This is part of the reason I left STL and will never move back. The entire region is run by people who look at other regions, see their success, do the opposite, and then wonder why they aren’t improving.

    • Ryann

      Amen! I am hoping that we can improve this before its too late for the city. Mayor Slay is not doing anything to my knowledge.

  • John Westermayer

    Too bad St. Louis County doesn’t have a great leader like Mr.Slay,Mr Doolittle has let the county go downhill,while the city is on the way up.Maybe we can consolidate and let those making good decisions take over,It’s a shame we can’t make Francis Slay mayor for life,he is doing one of the best jobs in the country,just look at where
    Detroit is at for comparison.

    • John R

      Wait, Slay isn’t Mayor for Life?

    • MiguelTejada82

      That’s not exactly a winning motto: “STL – not as bad as Detroit”

    • Joe Schmoe

      The County’s decline was put into motion decades before Dooley. Sounds like your criticism have a slight racial angle.

      • John Westermayer

        I don’t see race mentioned in the article or my comment,only in your reply. I think it’s the economy we are concerned with not the color of one’s skin.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Certainly too much credit and blame goes to mayors.

      • Haza Reziak

        Really…I think you read it at a slight racist angle. Charlie Dooley isn’t an idiot because he’s black is he? Of course not. He acheived that without any racial help whatsoever. He was however re-elected the last time at a slight racial angle. Tide turned this time I guess. Wait…was that said with a slight racial angle?? Could be who knows.

    • Mike F

      “…a great leader like Mr.Slay…”

      I cannot disagree more with this statement. Mr. Slay plays pretty good lip service to transit, cyclist, and pedestrian needs, in addition to the benefits of maintaining and restoring older neighborhoods, but that’s about it. He takes money in the form of campaign contributions from Rex Sinquefield (who is not exactly an advocate of public-anything), and says the proposed statewide sales tax increase will be good for the City, in spite of the immorality of placing a greater percentage of taxation on his constituencies in the poor and middle class, in a time of rising commodity prices. Especially in the face of alternatives such as raising the fuel tax, especially on diesel, or raising income taxes on the wealthiest citizens and corporate interests. Of course, in the weak mayor system we have, he is in essence a figurehead. He can’t tell Streets Director Welterman to incorporate traffic calming into every street improvement, or tell him to re-stripe streets to slow traffic for the safety of both ped/cyclists and motorists. (There is not one surface street in the City which needs to be six lanes wide, and yet…). Nor can he tell the various alderidiots to stop spending discretionary moneys on alley/street paving of historic brick (which also acts as traffic calming, in addition to decreasing storm-water runoff), nor can he dissuade them from installing a stop sign on every corner because some psycho-mommy or “concerned citizen” is to uneducated to know–or too ignorant to observe–that the people who don’t pay attention to speed limits are the same people who blow by intersections as amusement.

      If the City is indeed on the way up–admittedly, this may be the case in the Central Corridor and a few select neighborhoods, but elsewhere, particularly in the SE and NE parts of the City, the future is still uncertain–then it is not so much the product of Mayor Slay’s “leadership”, but rather the demands on the market from younger people who have moved in over the last 5-10 years. Additionally, the entrepreneurial movement of smaller businesses into the City –often driven by those same younger folks–has occurred largely because of the broader trend nationally of younger demographic individuals moving into urban areas, and not the result of any perceived contributions Mr. Slay has made.

      Not a fan of Mr. Dooley, either, but much of what ails StL Co.–and the City, for that matter–is often beyond his ability and power to address, outside of speechifying.

  • John

    I would much rather vote for an increase in the gasoline tax to fund roads. I’d only vote for a sales tax if specifically earmarked for transit.


    I gotta wonder: what happens if this tax doesn’t pass in November? After reading Scott’s plea, it does seem that MODOT (or should we call them MODOH) has their own agenda. I like the idea of funding transit, but it seems that MODOH won’t be doing this, even if it does pass. So it seems that if the tax doesn’t pass, then MODOH will not get the extra funding they “need”, meaning they will need to use existing funds for what they want to do anyways (highways)…which seems to, in turn, leave nothing left for transit (versus a little bit if it does pass). So it seems like transit is screwed if it passes, but even more screwed if it doesn’t? I am reading into this correctly? Which brings up another question: Is simply voting “No” the best thing we can do in this situation?

    • John R

      If this fails I think there is still a good chance that the main pieces on the City transit list — the 2 BRT-lite projects and Saint Louis Streetcar — get funded in the next ten years anyway. So its not like this is “make-it-or-break-it” for more transit routes. As for MODO(H)(T), any agenda they may have doesn’t seem to be much different than those of all the counties that are submitting 90%+ highway projects. The exceptions are STL City and the KC area through MARC…(maybe Boone and possibly Greene but I haven’t seen what they may want).

    • John R

      the vote is in August!

    • rgbose

      The issue won’t die if the tax fails at the ballot. My hope is that the legislature considers a combo of gas taxes, tolls, and sales tax. What we really need is fundamental reform, but doubt that’ll happen.

      • John R

        I think if this fails there is a good chance there will be a move by state leaders to suck it up and pursue tolling I-70. MODOT has already argued that it can do that w/o a vote and if it really feels the work needs to be done it may just have to go that route. Another option is pursuit of an incremental widening of I-70 in rural MO over many years. Anyway, it would put them back to where they were almost a decade ago when they were floating an I-70 toll.
        As for gas and sales tax, I don’t really see a lot of interest in that by the legislature if its a sound defeat. But who knows.

        • Mike F

          “Another option is pursuit of an incremental widening of I-70 in rural MO over many years.” Which, if my observations based on traveling through KS and CO on I-70 over the last decade and a half are any indication, is similar to what those two states did. Except instead of widening, they tore up entire 10-20 mile lengths of 70 and rebuilt them–literally–from the ground (grade) up.

          • John R

            Ohio did the same with I-70. It takes a while, but the segmented approach is the traditional one.

    • tpekren

      In my opinion voting NO is the best thing that can be done. Why, the Missouri Statehouse might grow a pair and raise the gas tax and or toll I-70/I-44. It wouldn’t hurt the state to actually tax online sales and raise the cig tax if it goes out and gives tax cuts away. It amazes what Missouri can’t figure out even though conservative states like Kansas, Indiana, OK and Ohio have tolled at least parts of their interstates and have higher gas taxes, only OK in the immediate area has a lower gas tax (but has toll roads). I believe a number of states have raised their gas tax in the last few years, including NC and VA. The reality is that this has been and will be a highway fund via a regressive non-user sales tax. The voters need to say NO
      I give the St. Louis City at least credit for letting everyone know where its priorities lay just as their should be no surprised in St. Charles, JeffCO, etc. The big disappointment is St. Louis county has decided not to fight the good fight. It simply rolled over and offer a list that fits nicely into MoDOT/State house desire to rebuild the interstate system on sales tax dollars by the voter as a convenient way to avoid the hard work of governing the state. That is why the state is stagnant.

      • Agreed entirely. I would only consider supporting an increased sales tax for highways (ahem, “transportation”, sorry…) after the state fixes some of its other funding systems — i.e. a significantly-increased gas tax and/or tolls. I’d also add that MO desperately needs a significantly-increased tobacco use tax.

        Locally, I want to see St. Louis City max out its allowable taxes on both those aforementioned special use items (and yes, gas is special use, despite its pervasiveness) to fund alternative transportation ONLY within the City.

        After all that, maybe I’d take a more serious consideration of the state’s sales tax amendment. But that’s still doubtful, considering the highway-transpo ratio we’re seeing.

      • Steve Kluth

        Agree with your comment. However, most of the toll roads in KS, OK, IN, and OH predate the interstate system. A couple were added later, but were also not originally designated as interstates. (E.g., I-44 southwest of OKC.) Some states, notably KY and CT, have also removed tolls from their limited access roads.

        Personally, I think the state should either raise the gas tax or reinstate the tax cuts Ol’ Rexy championed through the MO legislature earlier this year. A higher sales tax would affect me less, but I still realize the impacts of these acts. This region and state need to reinvent themselves or they will continue to struggle economically.

        • dempster holland

          I say defeat the sales tax. Then if the business interests
          want better roads, tell them to instruct their hired hands in
          the state legislature to restore the income tax cuts to help
          pay for roads and other services

  • rgbose
    • brian

      Which is somewhat understandable because of the much lower population density in both those counties. This is especially true for Jefferson County. Some money would have been nice and forward looking. Highways make sense for these two counties given that they are dependent to a large degree on commuting workers to the STL City and County.

    • brian

      It looks like 7% of the JeffCo money will actually go to construction of a Mississippi River port.

      • rgbose

        Indeed, missed that.

  • matimal

    New highways or major highway expansions are inconceivable in Ohio. Ohio is struggling to maintain the roads it has. The most major projects are rebuilding, not the construction of new roads. Where is the support and money coming from for this in Missouri?

  • brian

    I just don’t get the county’s fascination with road construction. Check that, I do. It financially benefits a large number of politically connected people.

  • mc

    I don’t think I’ll be voting for this come August…

    What do other people think?

    • John Westermayer

      Mayor Slay endorsed it on his fb page,I think it will help our region and put a lot of people to work,although I do agree the gas tax is a better option and would allow us to put this sales tax to better use.

    • dempster holland

      biggest boondoggle to come down the pike in a long time–and a regressive
      tax to boot. Easy decision: vote no

    • Mike F

      Please vote, and vote NO.

  • T-Leb

    I agree mostly, however, A LOT of city residents work in the county and drive there M-F. Also, don’t give credence to arguments that are obviously absurd ways to sell the projects to different voting constituencies. A road doesn’t increase property values anywhere besides a logging forest.