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County, O’Fallon tussle over immediate future of city’s North Main Street

ofallon_moA decision to close down lanes on North Main Street in O’Fallon could have consequences for the city if it wants to use about $2.5 million in St. Charles County transportation sales tax funds to build two major road projects.

St. Charles County officials have said that, if O’Fallon decides to close two or three lanes of North Main Street north of Interstate 70, then county funds could be withheld for a proposed extension of Sonderen Street – from Eggering Drive to North Main – and reconstruction of a portion of Bramblett Road. But the county cannot put a hold on the city forever.

County Executive Steve Ehlmann has said that if O’Fallon wants to narrow a portion of North Main Street, it simply could agree to abide by requirements for using the county’s money for Sonderen and Bramblett until they are built, and then, once the county money is spent in three to four years and the projects are finished, the city could do what it wants to North Main.

“When it’s over, it’s their street and they can do what they want,” Ehlmann said.

The Sonderen Road extension is particularly significant because it is designed to loop north of I-70 and take traffic off an already congested section of Main Street.

The issue arose during the Sept. 13 County Council meeting when the council rejected amending an intergovernmental agreement for the two road projects calling for the city to agree not to narrow North Main Street.

O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy asked that the county eliminate a requirement that the O’Fallon City Council pass a resolution by Nov. 13 stating that “it does not support a ‘road diet’ or other changes to the land configuration of Main Street or Route K that would reduce the vehicular traffic capacity of these roadways.”

The resolution will not bind the city and could be ignored; however, other clauses in the agreements still would require the city not to narrow North Main if it wants to use county money for the two projects, county officials have said.

Councilman Mike Elam (District 3) made a motion to amend the Sonderen and Bramblett agreements as the council was considering adoption of the county’s transportation improvement plan for 2016 through 2018. The plan lists $156 million in road projects funded by the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax.

The plan had been recommended to the council by the county Road Board and includes intergovernmental agreements that have to be signed by municipalities and the county for 18 individual road projects.

Elam said he has been assured by Hennessy, city officials and city council members that the city has no plans to shut down lanes along North Main. The idea of reducing lanes to allow outdoor dining in front of restaurants along North Main had been discussed in a consultant’s study, which has sparked controversy in the city.

“If they would do something like that it would be extremely stupid because that area of road is extremely busy,” Elam said.

But Elam also said the county may be putting “what if” conditions in a transportation project requiring the city to do something that “is going a little above and beyond.”

“If they have no intention to do that at any time and it’s never talked about, what would they care if we have that in there,” said Council Chairman Joe Brazil (District 2).

Elam said there is sort of a “big brother feeling” with the county telling a municipality what to do.  Later in the discussion, Councilman Mike Klinghammer (District 6) said even though a resolution is non-binding for the city, it seems “dictatorial” on the county’s part, which is a situation he said he wanted to avoid.

Elam and Klinghammer cast the only council votes in favor of a motion to eliminate the resolution requirements, which was rejected in a 5-2 vote.  Ehlmann, Brazil and Councilman Joe Cronin (District 1) were less charitable toward O’Fallon’s request.

Cronin, who is from St. Paul, north of O’Fallon, said Hwy. N south through O’Fallon and north of I-70 is a major route for county residents north of the city. He said it would be “lunacy” for the city to close down lanes on North Main Street because it would add to the existing traffic congestion. He added that there is a lot of “mistrust” of city officials by businessmen along North Main.

“We’re not telling O’Fallon what to do, we’re just saying we’re not going to spend money on streets that run adjacent to this street (North Main) if you’re going to block this street up,” Cronin said. “If you want to block that street up so be it but we’re not going to give you $2.5 million to improve the side streets to do so.”

Ehlmann said he understands that city officials would rather have the county allocate them money and leave them alone to do with it what they want. But the county represents both city and county residents, he said. He added that establishing conditions with cities for using county money isn’t anything new; it’s been done with the Fifth Street project in St. Charles and in other projects using county funding for years.

Cronin added that the county could lose the trust of voters who have supported renewing the sale tax on the ballot. That trust could erode if the county allows O’Fallon to make a mistake with North Main, he said.

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