ST. LOUIS COUNTY • What seemed like a simple idea to make roads in St. Louis County more bike and pedestrian friendly has turned into an unfriendly uproar about its potential cost and dangers.
As a result, the Complete Streets program, once on a fast track to passage by the St. Louis County Council, has stalled.
“We need to rethink it,” acknowledges council member Pat Dolan, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Those against the plan to make bicycle and pedestrian access part of road improvement projects began expressing their concerns as the plan was headed to what appeared certain approval by the council.
Since then critics of a national effort to open more streets and roads to bikers and walkers have been a constant presence, returning to the council week after week.
Supporters say Complete Streets alterations will in many cases entail a rudimentary restriping of roads to identify lanes for bikers and walkers. They say the majority of the plan would affect rebuilt or new roads, not existing ones.
Critics charge that Complete Streets will require the installation of costly sidewalks, spend public money to widen streets and cause unnecessary congestion when traffic lanes are reduced to accommodate bicyclists.
Dolan met last week with Complete Streets foes. He will next sit down with the county highway department to discuss the potential cost of an initiative the agency estimates could exceed $300 million. Highway agency officials say they welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter with Dolan.
After weeks of hinting that passage is imminent, council members now say there is no timetable for enacting the ordinance.
Dolan promised the final version of the bill will take into account the points made by opponents as well as the concerns of county highway engineers.
“This won’t be an unfunded mandate where every road in the county gets a bike path,” the council member pledged.
Opponents also contend the Complete Streets initiative is a concession to Trailnet, a nonprofit advocate for healthy lifestyles that they say holds undue sway over county lawmakers.
“This particular bill reeks of self-interest,” said Karen Karabell of St. Louis, a frequent county bicyclist who is against dedicated bike paths on roads. “Trailnet has written the ordinance as a seat for themselves at the table.”
Ann Rivers Mack, Trailnet’s chief executive officer, brushes aside the charge that her group is using Complete Streets to advance its own agenda.
The organization, she says, has collaborated with county officials — including representatives of the planning and highway departments — to develop a Complete Streets program they believe serves the best interests of all county residents.
“They are clearly making things up,” Mack said of critics who claim Trailnet has played an oversized role in shaping regional Complete Streets policies.
Most area residents are likely not aware that partial funding for Complete Streets was folded into a 2013 ballot initiative focused primarily on upgrades to the public space at the Gateway Arch grounds.
Proposition P stipulated that 30 percent of the 3/16th-cent sales tax approved by voters goes to the Great Rivers Greenway park district for the expansion of bike and hiking trails throughout the region. A portion of the money would in turn be dedicated to Complete Streets projects.
Complete Streets has been adopted by approximately 600 communities nationwide. St. Louis, Ferguson and Clayton are among the local communities that have enacted the legislation.
St. Louis has used the program to accommodate bicycle traffic along a 1.1-mile section of Chippewa Street. Clayton has used Complete Streets to install curb ramps mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The issue landed in St. Louis County in late October when County Executive Charlie Dooley presented a proposal designed to give the county Highways, Traffic and Public Works Department wide latitude in implementing Complete Streets projects.
Dolan subsequently amended the original bill to broaden the scope of Complete Streets upgrades throughout the county.
The revised legislation prompted highway division spokesman David Wrone to publicly challenge the revisions.
Wrone charged that Dolan had introduced the “massive spending bill” without consulting traffic engineers. He estimated that the legislation, as amended, could saddle taxpayers with a $300 million bill for Complete Streets projects covering only 15 percent of county-maintained roadways.
Wrone’s remarks spurred the continuing presence of a coalition of bicycle commuters, cycling enthusiasts and big-government opponents at council meetings.
In addition to raising concerns about cost, some foes argue that dedicated cycling lanes are more dangerous than roads that consolidate bike and vehicular traffic.
“Bike lanes are blind spots,” said Nick Kasoff, of Ferguson, a bicycle commuter. “When a driver is entering the road from a driveway, they often overlook cyclists who are riding at the side of the road. And when they are making right turns, a cyclist in a bike lane is often in the motorist’s blind spot.”
Karabell wears a fluorescent vest identifying her as a bicycle safety instructor at council meetings. She maintains that teaching riders how to coexist with traffic is the key to keeping cyclists out of harm’s way.
She acknowledges that little empirical evidence exists to support the contention that bicycle education programs provide bikers with a greater level of safety than bike lanes.
According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 677 bicyclists lost their lives in 2011 — 2.1 percent of the total fatalities on the nation’s roads. The statistics, the most recent available, are not broken down to reflect how many of the cyclists died while riding in bike lanes.
“An extremely small percentage of people” view separate bike lanes as unsafe, said Mack, the Trailnet chief executive.
She said that because Karabell and other opponents like to ride in traffic, “they are under the false impression that everyone does.”
Council member Steve Stenger emphasized that the amended legislation introduced in late November was never intended as the final word on Complete Streets.
“We always planned on changes to the bill,” Stenger said.
Dolan said input from the highway department, an agency traditionally focused on vehicular traffic, will play a key role in shaping the third and what he hopes is the final version of the Complete Streets bill presented to the council.
A move to accommodate additional bicyclists on roads designed for cars and trucks, the council member noted, is “basically a change of philosophy.”