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South County Connector is opportunity for transportation innovation

South County Connector is opportunity for transportation innovation

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“Thinking outside of the box” is viewed positively, but how about “thinking outside of the lane”? Not so much. We all want drivers focused on the road. Ingenuity behind the wheel is rarely a good thing. However, innovation is good for roads planning and construction. There is room for new ideas in highway building, and St. Louis County government has an excellent opportunity for creativity with the South County Connector.

The South County Connector Project is a new road designed to create more efficient north-south traffic flow between Clayton and South County. The project is needed and will improve the region’s transportation network. Just as important, it offers the county a great opportunity to finance the project in a creative manner that utilizes user fees, encourages carpooling and benefits all drivers.

St. Louis already exercises creativity in transportation engineering. Some examples include the reversible lanes on Interstate 70 in the city and the wonderful jughandle design at Hanley, Eager and Interstate 64.

Our focus is on the financing and access; we will leave the details of the route and design to the engineers. We believe St. Louis County should strongly consider building the South County Connector as the region’s first high-occupancy toll route. Such routes allow high-occupancy vehicles free use of the road while charging a fee to solo drivers. St. Louis County already funds its roads in a variety of ways, including dedicated transportation property and sales taxes along with state gas tax funds and federal grants. This would just add tolling to the mix. The Missouri Constitution’s prohibition against tolling does not impose any legal limits because the South County Connector is a St. Louis County project.

The South County Connector could have a moderately priced toll on express lanes between River Des Peres Boulevard and Hanley Road during rush hours only. The toll should be high enough to limit congestion while remaining low enough to attract traffic. There is no need for toll booths — the entire system could easily be automated and payable via transponders (e.g., EZ Pass) for regular users and license plate-based payments via cell phone for others (once you safely stop, of course). Importantly, free access for cars with multiple adults would incentivize carpooling, thereby limiting congestion during rush hour.

There is no illusion that collecting a toll would cover the entire expense of building/maintaining the South County Connector. A high toll is not necessary here. Rather, the South County Connector’s toll on its new express lanes (perhaps even reversible express lanes) should be low enough to attract essential traffic to the road. That way, even the people who choose to avoid the toll road benefit from all the commuters who do choose to drive it. For better or worse, this recommendation may limit the ability of private operators to finance and manage the project. However, county government or a private company could operate what we envision.

Toll roads have reduced congestion and been financially successful in other localities. An example is State Highway 550 in Texas, which will connect two major highways with a tollway outside of Brownsville. Local officials believe the highway will serve important transportation needs, and the toll’s estimated revenue of $1 million per year makes the $41 million price tag more manageable. In California, private developers constructed high-occupancy toll lanes on SR-91 in Orange County. By transferring less essential travel to non-peak times and public transportation, Orange County tollways have reduced peak congestion by more than 25 percent on most roads. The SR-91 lanes have proven successful in reducing congestion and do not take any money from general transportation funds.

St. Louis County can be a leader in encouraging carpooling, user fees and creative highway design all in one project. These are not radical ideas. All of them have been implemented effectively elsewhere. High-occupancy toll routes are the best way to increase capacity while remaining fiscally responsible and reducing congestion. In this case, “thinking outside the lane” is exactly what St. Louis County needs.

David Stokes is a policy analyst and Joseph Miller is a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.

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