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Public vs. Private: The future of transportation in St. Charles County

Is public transportation needed  in St. Charles County? The answer depends on who you ask.

In a recent letter to Mid Rivers Newsmagazine, two residents – Diana Mulick and Georgia McCleish – commented that the city of O’Fallon’s budget had no indication of funding to study the lack of local transportation for its citizens. They also said “most of St. Charles County has not acknowledged this problem.” The women claimed to be writing on behalf of a group known as TASCC (Transportation Access for St. Charles County). 

Bryan Road southbound at Mexico Road (Source: John Tremmel)

The women lamented, “There is no dependable, sustainable, affordable transportation for ordinary citizens to get from Point A to Point B on a daily basis. We all need to become aware of the residents in our communities for whom just getting to work, the grocery store, the bank or a doctor’s office becomes a real challenge.

“We should be looking toward local transportation to meet the needs of all of our residents. Benefits of such a system would include better mobility for all citizens, fewer cars on our streets and less pollution, not to mention making it possible for more residents to patronize local businesses and venues of all kinds.”

County Executive Steve Ehlmann said in an interview with Mid Rivers Newsmagazine that he has heard that some hospitals were experiencing difficulties with staffing due to the shortage of public transportation. However, calls seeking confirmation of that concern were not returned.

The county boasts five full-service, general practice hospitals (BJC St. Peters Hospital, BJC Progress West Hospital, SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital – St. Charles and SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital – Lake Saint Louis) as well as a 150-bed private psychiatric hospital (CenterPointe). 

As with the county’s other major companies, some hospital employees travel into St. Charles County from St. Louis County but that region’s public transportation system does not. So, does public transportation make sense for St. Charles County?

Public transit by the numbers

According to Steve Ehlmann, several factors have to be considered. 

“First, there is a philosophical question about the responsibility for transportation. Should it be a government responsibility or a personal/family responsibility? Second, what is the minimum population density that supports adequate usage of public transportation? And how many areas within the county have that density? No one has been able to give me that information,” Ehlmann said when Mid Rivers Newsmagazine met with him to further explore the concept of public transportation. 

Ehlmann wondered if “a system of vouchers for Uber rides or something similar might not be more feasible” than spending tax dollars on a mass-transit system. 

Currently, the only forms of public transportation in St. Charles County are The Charley (St. Charles City Transit Service), Ride STC, the SCC Transportation Services Program and OATS Transit. Ehlmann confirmed that there are no current plans to add more bus routes in the city or county, and no plans to connect to Metro Transit buses or MetroLink light rail. He pointed out that in 1990, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments had moved St. Charles County up on its list for possible connection to the MetroLink light rail system being planned for the metro St. Louis area. At that time, the county spent $150,000 on a feasibility study, created an SCC Transit Authority to administer mass transit in the county, and included a proposed tax increase, to finance a MetroLink extension, on the August 1994 ballot. 

The ballot proposal received 48.5% of the vote and was defeated. The measure was opposed by 78% of the voters in St. Peters, 66% of the voters in St. Charles City, and 62% of the voters in O’Fallon – the largest centers of density within the county. Supporters urged a second vote after citing a low (23.5%) voter turnout. So, according to Ehlmann, the County Council put the proposal back on the ballot for the November 1994 election. With a much larger turnout, the proposal only received 43% of the vote.

In 2001, with Bi-State facing financing issues, the county’s only Metro (Bi-State) bus route was eliminated. Ehlmann said the five busses that ran the route from Earth City to Mid Rivers Mall Drive carried an average of only 206 passengers each workday.

O’Fallon Main St. southbound at I-70 after morning rush (Source: John Tremmel)

“More significantly, by 2009 only 3.6% of households in the county had no automobile; 96.4% had at least one automobile,” Ehlmann said.

He speculated that a mass-transit proposal and tax on the ballot in St. Charles County today might not receive even the same level of support it did in 1994, given the continuing litany of crime and funding problems reported about MetroLink and Metro Transit. He also said some residents feared that criminals would ride mass transit into St. Charles County. He added that he believes voters would oppose a transit tax because many residents moved to St. Charles to leave the higher (as of 2012) crime rates of St. Louis City (129 per 1,000 residents) and St. Louis County (38.9), to live in St. Charles County where the crime rate is 28.9.

Should county voters change their minds, Patti Beck, Bi-State Development’s director of communications, said the agency is “always available to discuss providing bus public transit services to St. Charles County or the City of St. Charles or other jurisdictions.”

“But,” she added, “we can only do so if they establish a funding source(s) to pay us to provide the service.”

Realistically, despite the desire of some community members to access public transportation, the numbers just don’t add up. According to comparative research conducted by Mid Rivers Newsmagazine, neither St. Louis County nor St. Charles County have the type of density per acre that makes sense for mass transit. 

Improving county roadways

Asked about the county’s current transportation challenges and priorities, Ehlmann said, “Since 2012, MoDOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) has completed nine projects on its system in St. Charles County, at a total cost of $176.7 million. Sixty percent of the cost came from local funds, including federal funds secured by local entities. Only 40% came from MoDOT funds.

“MODOT’s priority is to maintain its existing system. St. Charles County is one of 14 Missouri counties (out of 114 counties and 1 independent city) that are growing. St. Charles County must improve and add to the road system, not just maintain it.”

Ehlmann points out that MoDOT dollars do not follow growth. 

During the time period of 2015 to the second quarter of 2017, Ehlmann said job growth in St. Charles County increased by 6.29%; St. Louis County and City job growth increased by just 2.98% and 1.24%, respectively. However, during the corresponding time period of 2019-2022, MoDOT’s transportation investment percentage was projected at 10.1% for St. Charles County, 47.3% for St. Louis County and 10.5% for St. Louis City. Aging infrastructure plays a role in determining where state dollars are spent. 

But that reality does force the county and its cities to secure other methods of funding road infrastructure improvement and additions.

Ehlmann cited the example of the intersection of I-70 and I-64 in Wentzville as a major bottleneck, which is difficult to resolve due to an existing and narrow railroad overpass. Interstate 70 and the overpass were built in 1951. However, due to the recent development in that portion of the county, the bottleneck now experiences average daily traffic of 82,000 vehicles, including passenger cars and tractor-trailer rigs.

Ehlmann noted that proposed solutions would “help remove Wentzville resident traffic from the 82,000 vehicles, given that about 18% enters and exits from Wentzville. The other 82% must pass through.” “We are working on ways for Wentzville-only volume to go around and avoid that I-70 bottleneck,” Ehlmann said.

“The Wentzville I-70 project was added to the region’s long-range road infrastructure plan in 2019. But, since the state did not do a State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) in 2020 because of funding shortages from the pandemic, it still is not funded,” Ehlmann explained. “Hopefully, it will be later this year.”

I-64 westbound approaching the I-70 turnoff. A narrow railroad bridge creates a bottleneck in this area that slows traffic. (Source: John Tremmel)

Not mentioned by Ehlmann but of equal frustration to county residents are evening rush hours when commuters typically experience long backups on I-64/Hwy. 40 westbound, approaching the I-70 intersection.

Part of that is caused by the railroad bridge bottleneck that in turn backs up traffic entering westbound from I-64. The other part of the problem on I-64 is having just one lane westbound for all I-64 exiting onto I-70. The exit’s capacity does not match the traffic volume.

In order to advance local road improvement projects, St. Charles County has entered into a number of agreements with MoDOT in which the county provides funding to MoDOT that enables the state agency to qualify for matching federal funds. Perhaps most notably, this method was used to expand Route 364 into St. Charles County. Phase 3 of that project, coming in at $118 million, brought the four-lane divided highway through five county municipalities with interchanges at Hwy. 94, Hwy. K, Bryan Road and Henke Road and additional ramps at I-64. The St. Charles County Road Board and local municipalities including O’Fallon and Dardenne Prairie contributed a total of $57 million to complete Phase 3. 

Additionally, the county has applied for and been selected as a recipient of transportation funding through the Governor’s Transportation Cost-Share Program – a joint venture between MoDOT and the state Department of Economic Development. 

I-70 westbound traffic at railroad overpass beginning to build (Source: John Tremmel)

In January 2020, the governor’s office announced that St. Charles County had been selected to receive funding to assist with projects that include improvements to Route A for the GM Wentzville Assembly Plant, adding lanes, expanding access to a medical center and technology park, and improving city streets.

Additionally, a $1.23 million award will assist in adding an additional lane to I-70 in O’Fallon.

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