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Those living in the southernmost reaches of the county suffer "very poor" access to the commercial and governmental core of the region, St. Louis County officials say.

So the county is studying how to link major north-south arterials between Highway 40 (Interstate 64) and points south of Interstate 44, just west of the River Des Peres. The South County Connector study — still in its early stages — also will look at a new I-44 interchange.

"Our interest here is not so much making it easier for them to get to county government. We have a satellite office in south St. Louis County," said Garry Earls, the county's chief operating officer. "The interest is that the financial center of the St. Louis region is right here in Clayton."

Efforts to improve traffic flow south of Highway 40 date back decades. But plans to extend Interstate 170 south as a six-lane expressway met with strong resistance in the mid-1990s and were shelved. Many along that proposed corridor complained that it would divide communities, displace residents and business owners, and cause noise.

The highway ends abruptly at the Brentwood Promenade shopping center, anchored by a Target Greatland store.

Earls said the idea of an I-170 extension farther south is a nonstarter. But, he added, that doesn't mean the need for direct access between Highway 40 and I-44 has gone away.

He envisions a possible extension of River Des Peres Boulevard to connect with Big Bend Boulevard and Laclede Station Road north of I-44. In the end, it may be something akin to a Forest Park Parkway, the east-west route that today links Clayton to the Central West End.

The study will look at multiple options, county planners say. The formal boundaries of the study area are Manchester Road to the north, Hanley Road and Laclede Station Road to the west, Murdoch Avenue and Watson Road to the south, and Big Bend Boulevard and River Des Peres to the east.

Earls said it could involve a four-way interchange with I-44. Between Hampton Avenue in St. Louis and Elm Avenue in Webster Groves, I-44 has no four-way interchanges that permit traffic to get on and off the highway in both directions.

"If you get off at one exit and you want to get back on, you have to drive through on residential streets to get there," said John Hicks, an analyst with the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic. "That contributes to a lot of the traffic problems."

Several years ago, the Missouri Department of Transportation recommended building a four-way interchange at I-44 and River Des Peres. The project is not yet funded but remains on the St. Louis region's long-range transportation wish list.

Planners held an open house to brief the public on the South County Connector study earlier this month in Affton. They hope to return with some concepts by the spring, Hicks said. The necessary environmental studies are expected to be wrapped up by early 2013.

No funding has been set aside to make the improvements. and transportation dollars are in short supply across the country. But Earls said that doesn't mean the economic climate won't change within the next five years — roughly the amount of time it will take to plan the improvements.

Once funding is found, construction could begin within five to 10 years, officials said.

St. Louis County also is planning for connector projects in North County and in the Chesterfield-Maryland Heights areas.

The north connector would continue Highway 141 and the Maryland Heights and Earth City expressways along Aubuchon Road and other territory to Highway 367 north of Interstate 270. The Chesterfield-Maryland Heights connector would include a new road along the Missouri River in the two cities.

Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch said a South County connection study is needed.

Motorists heading to and from Clayton, Richmond Heights and Brentwood use Elm Avenue between the four-way interchange at Interstate 44 and Brentwood Boulevard to the north, she said. And that generates a lot of traffic.

Traffic was particularly heavy while Highway 40 was closed for reconstruction, she added.

"The streets were built for residential travel," she said. "It's slow and it's got to be frustrating for people trying to get from Clayton south."

Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams said the transit agency has an interest in the county's future plans because the connector project could affect vehicle access to the Shrewsbury MetroLink station at Lansdowne Avenue and River Des Peres. But it is not clear yet what that effect would be, she added.

Because of its location, some motorists view neighboring Shrewsbury as a "cut-through city," said former Alderman Ed Purvis. He found the timing of the study "very interesting," considering there is no money for such ambitious road projects.

Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, asked whether planners have considered Hampton Avenue as a more direct north-south connection in the city, which is short and generally industrial.

"There are north and south alternatives," she said. "My question is: What study says it's needed?"

Phil Sutin of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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