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County Council approves agreement to begin work on I-70/Hwy. K interchange

ThinkstockPhotos-100598506The St. Charles County Council has approved an agreement with O’Fallon to begin new work on the Interstate 70/Hwy. K interchange despite a last-minute attempt to add a catch.

The catch was a failed attempt to add an amendment requiring the city to seek voter approval before narrowing a section of North Main Street north of the interchange.

The council voted 5-2 to approve the intergovernmental agreement between the county and the city at its April 27 meeting, but without the amendment suggested by Councilmember Joe Cronin (District 1).

Cronin and Councilmember Joe Brazil (District 2) cast the two “no” votes on a bill that authorizes spending $6.25 million in county transportation sales tax money to get the $16 million project underway.

Cronin said he supported the interchange and related work along the interstate’s outer roads but was alarmed by information in newspaper articles and the city’s study of how to reinvigorate the downtown area.

Chief among those concerns is narrowing the four-lane section of North Main north of the interchange to two lanes with the installation of bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways.

There has been no action on any downtown plan but O’Fallon businessmen came before the county council at the meeting, saying that narrowing North Main would add more traffic bottlenecks.

“It would not be wise to spend $6.25 million of St. Charles County taxpayer dollars on the I-70/Main Street interchange if O’Fallon city leaders plan to choke traffic a quarter mile north of I-70,” said Steve Blechle, an owner of O’Fallon Plaza shopping center. Blechle said he was representing 30 or more businesses along North Main.

Blechle and other businessmen said they favored the interchange improvements but also remember other controversial downtown redevelopment plans in 1991 and 2003 that “left a sour taste.”

“Because of stuff like this O’Fallon residents have been very leery of future city developments,” Cronin said.

Instead, Cronin suggested adding an amendment to the agreement stipulating that if O’Fallon officials want to shut down two lanes on North Main Street, they need ballot approval by residents in the city’s first and fifth wards, which are north of I-70.

“I’m not trying to tell O’Fallon what to do, (but) I’m saying O’Fallon should let voters decide what they want to do downtown,” he said.

Councilmember Mike Klinghammer (District 6) countered that “it does sound like we’re telling the city of O’Fallon what to do.”

Klinghammer is a former St. Charles city councilmember. He agreed that it makes no sense to shut down traffic a few blocks north of the interchange, but said that decision may be up to the O’Fallon City Council. He also asked why an election would be limited to two wards.

Cronin said residents in the northern part of the city faced the most immediate impact.

“I don’t think it’s quite fair for the fellow who just moved into the south side of O’Fallon, who wants a nice quaint area to walk his dog and sip his latte to be putting people out of business in north O’Fallon,” Cronin said.

County officials said studies suggest that 27 percent of the traffic exiting from I-70 will travel north along North Main and 73 percent will turn left and go south of the interstate. But Cronin said bottlenecks will affect residents in Josephsville and St. Paul who use North Main to get to I-70.

County Executive Steve Ehlmann and other county officials, however, said they worried that further delays might jeopardize needed federal and state funding to complete the project. The county and O’Fallon officials had completed negotiations on the agreement before these issues came to light, Ehlmann said; though he noted that he doesn’t blame businesses and residents along North Main for being concerned given the past history.

The County Road Board, a citizen–member board that recommends the allocation of transportation sales tax funds, isn’t in the business of spending money to decrease the capacity of roads, he said.

The city, federal agencies and MoDOT may not have any money to pay for a major improvement on North Main anyway, Ehlmann said.

If O’Fallon officials come to the county with a request for transportation sales tax money to fund a similar project, the county can address the issue, Ehlmann said.

“I don’t think we need to hold this project hostage so we can get our way on something that may or may not come our way later on,” Ehlmann said.

“If we continue to fumble this ball the feds and MoDOT aren’t going to be patient with us and this whole project could fall apart,” said John Greifzu, director of the County Road Board.

If an amendment were added, the agreement would have to go back to the O’Fallon City Council for their consideration. If they did not approve the agreement, there would be no contract, he said.

He added that state and federal officials are going to ask, “When are these local bozos going to get their act together and get their money on the table?”

The county lost about $8 million when the St. Peters Board of Aldermen didn’t move forward on improvements to the I-70/Cave Springs interchange, Greifzu said. After the meeting, Ehlmann said that the state money available for the I-70/Hwy. K project may be among the last major capital improvement funding for which MoDOT has committed money.

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