My St. Louis Peer Review

Predating our original I-275 over 20 years, Route 40 or known as ‘Farty’ to St. Louis locals, is one of the nation’s oldest highways. The interchanges connecting to this road were equally outdated and dangerous. Pedestrian overpass bridges were also old and failing. It was clear the issue was to address life expectancy, thus Route 40, or known as I-64, badly needed attention.

Beth Alden from our MPO asked if I would be willing to go to a Peer Review Exchange in St. Louis sponsored by the Federal Highway Authority(FHWA). It was explained to me that Commissioner Miller suggested my name as part of pool of folks recommended to attend. FHWA has such programs to share successful stories to other cities or agencies. I was aware of similar programs because this was not my first time working with FHWA. Our pool of folks were roughly a group of community leaders, commissioners, and private industry representatives(HNTB who led the tolling crusade in Florida). We were invited to hear first hand why I-64 was one of FHWA’s finest cases.

Ugh, we didn’t have enough time to meet urban hero Alex from nextSTL.com (similar to skyscarpercity.com and URBN Tampa Bay here). Once we landed at Lambert, we decided to forgo light rail (that was easy, we are from Tampa after all) and we opted for a taxi to downtown to meet Alex. My friends, who are active neighborhood association presidents were anxious to get the local scoop on I-64. The end result, nothing too spectacular. When we mentioned if there was any hype with the Missouri Model(I will explain later) or successful outcomes underscored by the media at large, we were told no. In the end, Alex basically confirmed my research on I-64, a very old road that needs to be fixed badly. Alex made one point, St. Louis and the surrounding counties survived without I-64 while it was being reconstructed. Yes, there was no Carmageddon, even with up to estimated, 170,000 trips daily on I-64. How many times have we heard this story before?

Weeks before my trip, I started research for I-64 and received tips from my comrades. Online discussions seemed to indicated that I-64 could have been buried, covered or become a boulevard. Despite all the ideas, many felt it would just lead to a slightly more efficient road serving suburbia. That is exactly what happened. But some of the ideas of encouraging it to become a boulevard or more boulevard-like to spur more urban development would have been helpful. For one, the areas along I-64 are various generations of suburban neighborhoods and with more urban neighborhoods. Speckled in between such, I saw abandoned properties, light commercial development and newer generation suburban retail centers. All such could be retrofitted and supported by a right corridor…along the right points. But realize Missouri’s MPO serves 8 counties. I can’t imagine how many pitchforks would spike up to more progressive ideas.

In the 1990s, the l-64 reconstruction project was presented as primarily an interstate widening project, computed with the usual engineered jargon that was eventually met with fierce opposition. Also, it was stated during the presentation, that another damaging interstate project called I-44, was still fresh with many concerned about property removals and so forth. This spur the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and East-West Gateway Council of Governments (EWGCOG, their MPO) to conduct a new environmental impact study to minimize disruptions to property owners along the corridors. Even trees that were removed were replaced elsewhere. In all, 15 homes and 7 businesses were displaced, different compared to the nearly 200 properties to be impacted by TBX. And different than the hundreds of properties that were taken between 2002 and today, by our Florida Department of Transportation(FDOT really wanted approximately 1070 properties since the 90’s-it’s hard to say how close they are to that now). MoDOT definitely distanced themselves as a saint compared to the FDOT, at least in the realm of DOTs when they presented their efforts to work with the community.

I felt the Missouri Model was the centerpiece of the I-64 reconstruction effort. Sure we heard stories of intricate aesthetic sound walls applied, that affluent suburban communities mostly kept their homes, and new, beautiful pedestrian bridges are now lapping over I-64. Oh, and let’s not forget the tulips planted. But such particular work programs in infrastructure are not usually discussed. Especially not job creation focusing on minorities to encourage workforce diversity and opportunities. I was moved by the amount of energy to create this partnership ranging from transportation construction and to engineering design. But I couldn’t help thinking, why just roads? One great question was asked, was this workforce local? There was no answer.

Currently, FDOT has work programs throughout the state aiming for workforce diversity. But consider this, when I asked FDOT if they have enough workforce to construct TBX, their answer is no. It is same for the Gateway Express Project in Pinellas and other projects throughout the state. There is little to doubt that TBX would be an aggressive Design-Build project like I-64. Such would require a massive workforce and though temporary jobs would be created, why build such a regressive infrastructure project that will machine away opportunities for all in the end? Why build something that will perpetuate and encourage our region to become even more car dependent? What about transit and numerous types of development that can complement such? What about jobs to support transit operations, the industry or other high tech jobs?

So here we are, sitting in traffic in a coach style bus on I-64. To be honest, it wasn’t Tampa Traffic but I-64 was not necessarily 10 miles of additional lanes (for TBX, that would be largely 90 miles of additional lanes). I witnessed a suite of land use changes; abandoned historic warehouses, gridded neighborhoods, and awful sprawl retail developments. Several counties reflected largely disjointed land usage, that was very apparent. Some areas seemed inclusive. There was no clear transect planning or regional growth plan to at least encourage positive organized growth or retrofit. Perhaps that boulevard idea could have help after all? But in the end, some patterns were so locked in. It was very unlikely I-64 could have done anymore even if it were to changed outfits.

While on this tour we wisp around large roundabouts garnished with tulips off of I-64. These exit points replaced the dangerous hairpin exits that were nearly a century old. We stopped at Forest Park, near the zoo and walked underneath an elevated road through a pedestrian tunnel. Yes, I-64 snips through a corner of the park but some park space was apparently regained after reconstruction. The grassy berms and other landscape features were technically placed and functioned as a well-designed buffer. Also, there were no lights along I-64 either, as surrounding neighborhoods and communities felt such would contribute to blight. Interstate lighting only appears near the city…naturally.

There was no doubt MoDOT worked on a high level with conservators from the park. But it was also helpful that I-64 is largely a recessed roadway (as originally designed) while all of our interstates in Tampa are elevated. You can literally see properties across this roadway on the same plane. But you still had to cross several lanes to get to this pedestrian paradise, as opposed to walking past neighborhood blocks as it should be.

According to our MoDOT representative, most of the neighborhood areas we visited were affluent and packed with lawyers. She even mentioned about a lawsuit against the project. There was chuckle on the bus, I can assume this meant don’t mess with rich nimby folks. Once in the neighborhoods, we didn’t see a huge shift in demographics. Sure there were some empty historic properties but they were up kept, mothballed better than what I’ve seen in Ybor. The majority of homes were large and ornate, some towered slightly over the sound walls. From this vantage, the I-64 corridor was very different from our I-275/I-4 corridors. While most of the areas along the corridor differed only by the generational types of suburban development in Missouri’s case, we clearly have a gamut of several building types and an apparent range of economic highs and lows in Tampa.

A group shot was taken, I was even told to proudly show my Stop TBX pin as we nestled on top of the cap(new plaza/park/museum) over I-44 with the St. Louis Arch in the background. This was MoDot’s crowning achievement, a $380 million dollar partnership to foundation project to build a park over an interstate. Like I-64, something needed to be done. Older infrastructure equated to pedestrian deaths due high-speed traffic and including roadway conflicts. It is a shame no interstate removal occurred to allow the entire city access to the river, I do know others tried.

So the cap lesson is about private-public partnerships, the City Arch Foundation orchestrated city, state, federal and corporate partnerships to achieve funding to get stuff done. They even began this project with a design competition though we know the outcome of any urban design competition is only as good as panelists. But imagine if Tampa were to have such a competition opportunity for transportation or transit projects? I know, right?

Other than engineering delays, the project is moving full steam ahead. Whether or not you agree with the cap it is the process that should be explored in Tampa, on all scales. I wish St. Louis success on this complex project.

Right before a flight, we were asked by a local about TBX. “A crime against humanity” my friend and neighborhood leader Rick proclaimed. He owned this line on our trip and as shocking it would sound in a general sense, it’s true. TBX is a large and a sophisticated effort to dehumanized not only transportation but the way of life in our communities. It is predicated on the very same infrastructure the ripped St. Louis to shreds. Even the possibilities of transit are dehumanized. A modernized streetcar is proposed to run down the interstate, a redefined BRT called BERT, or known as Bus Express Rapid Transit will only serve our north. Somehow FDOT expects a flock of pedestrians to get on top of the interstate to board these buses that will use lanes that largely dangerous and will suffer traffic jams. And yes, our local Commissioner Cindy Stuart is okay to run school buses on these express lanes despite knowing Miami has dealt with over 12,000 accidents with their express lanes in under 3 years. Consider this too, Westshore gets rail while those who may get paved over (once again), do not. In between this mess, HART is trying to solve gridlock by procuring a few Teslas while moving away from any notion to support real, robust mass transit. Even the head of HART proclaimed mass transit is dead during legislative delegation. Yes, crazy but true, this is Tampa today. FDOT is pining for our city to operate like Suntrax, a prototype city center soon under construction in Florida that will largely incorporate self-operating transportation things like AV, Drones and of course toll lanes. On an even greater level, TBX would be part of 850 miles of express toll lanes in Florida. Yes, this is a crime against humanity and then some.

By the way, our local waitress felt express tolls were okay because she claims the taxes she pays are too high. I realize part of her argument could be relative to the value from her taxes. She said the local bus service is limited and actually, politically discouraged in some municipalities. In short, they don’t want buses in rich suburban neighborhoods. It is interesting to point out that St. Louis and Tampa share roughly the same population but St. Louis has nearly double the amount buses.

At least St. Louis has 50 miles of light rail, right? But what about the sacrifices on urban neighborhoods? St. Louis has suffered immeasurable destruction from interstate builds that overshadows Tampa’s past. How about we end further destruction and advocate with a ground up citizen-led plan? Not limit our vision to just present an alternative to TBX but rather a look forward without TBX in the picture?

Yes, I do love fried ravioli. Thanks St. Louis!