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With federal stimulus money, South Grand plans to become a Great Street again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2009 - "I was a non-believer." That's how St. Louis Alderman Stephen Conway, D-8th Ward, described his reaction when traffic experts told him the best way to handle traffic on a busy section of Grand Boulevard between Arsenal and Utah was to reduce traffic lanes from four to three.

"I always opposed going down to three lanes, but I did promise that I would keep an open mind," he said, knowing that 25,000 vehicles pass through Grand and Arsenal each day, with Grand an important north-south route through the city.

But after a 30-day trial run of funneling traffic into two lanes with a center turn lane, traffic flow improved, motorists slowed down and residents overwhelmingly told officials they favored the change. Now, the temporary reconfiguration will remain while the city waits for federal stimulus money to make the changes permanent.

The test also changed the timing of traffic signals, simulated curb extensions at intersections, and closed two alleys on the west side of Grand between Arsenal and Juniata. Curb extensions, also called bump-outs, are areas where the curb juts out into the intersection to shorten the distance the pedestrian has to walk to cross the street.

The changes are just what the neighborhood needed to improve safety and aesthetics, especially as people enjoy the outdoor cafes in the area, said Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District.

"It's kind of distracting hearing cars race by on Grand and stop short squealing their brakes. It's not a nice experience when you're eating lunch or dinner," she said.

"People used Grand as a thoroughfare and it's not," added Witt. "It's a great business district. We're right next to the park and not far from the Botanical Garden. We're a destination. With slowing down traffic, people can actually see, 'Wow, these are great businesses. Look what they have here.' Now that it's slower, people can actually see what's going on."

"I've been onboard with this from the get-go," said Maureen "Mo" Costello, owner of Mokabe's Coffeehouse at the corner of South Grand and Arsenal. "I love the idea of wider sidewalks. I love the idea of fixed sidewalks. They're dangerous right now, to be perfectly honest."

City officials sent the plans late last month to the Missouri Department of Transportation, the agency handling federal transportation funds. Although the project was approved for stimulus funding earlier this year, MoDOT must ensure the plan meets all federal requirements. The goal is to get bids by the end of February, St. Louis Streets Director Todd Waelterman said. Construction is expected to begin in the spring.

A long-standing problem

For years civic leaders and area residents had worried about speeding motorists and traffic flow in this busy section of the city, home to a thriving business district as well as residential streets. About 10 years ago, Conway said, a study was done on how to slow traffic on Grand and "accommodate the needs of the neighborhood." The estimated cost at the time: $3.5 million.

"Then about two years ago they pulled out the dusty study again and updated it and came up with a more professional presentation," Conway said.

With the federal stimulus funds, "all of a sudden they're swinging around looking for shovel-ready projects," he said. "If you had one ready to go, it went to the top of the list" -- but 10 years down the road, the price is considerably higher.

"Now I have a project cost of almost $10 million. I was absolutely flabbergasted," said Conway. "How can you go from $3 million to $10 million?"

But Terry Freeland, manager of corridor studies for East-West Gateway Council of Governments, says the price jump isn't that unrealistic when considering inflation, especially in materials using oil products, and the fact that the new project includes new facets, such as the bump-outs and impervious surfaces.

Conway concedes cost estimates are just that -- estimates. "Nobody bid the project yet," he said. "Plus a lot of it is on these old city streets. You don't know what you're going to find, how many utilities will have to be relocated. They just don't know what all of those costs are going to be."

Show me the money

The amount of stimulus funding for this project -- $1.8 million -- falls far short of the project's estimated cost of $10 million.

"That, at this point, is the only committed funding for the construction phase," Freeland said. "There's a variety of sources that we could tap into, but it's just that none of those sources has been identified and committed yet."

Consequently, the project will be done in phases, Freeland said. Phase I, using stimulus funds, will focus on ADA compliance and safety. Crews will permanently restripe the street to three lanes, fix sidewalk hazards and build curb bump-outs at the intersections.

Plans also call for construction of an island at the Arsenal-Grand intersection to help channel traffic to a right-hand turn going west on Arsenal and provide a refuge for pedestrians going to Tower Grove Park, he said. "That's a difficult intersection currently for pedestrians to negotiate," he added.

Grand is one of the four Great Streets initiatives of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. The goal of the Great Streets program is to promote a community's social and economic development by making streets friendlier to foot and bike traffic and by improving the streetscape. (Along with Grand, the four Great Streets initiative includes Manchester Road in west St. Louis County, Natural Bridge in north county and Labadie in Franklin County.)

"We assume that the cities involved in these Great Streets projects will be applying for applying for funding on their own through the (federal) Surface Transportation Program," said Freeland. "Or there may be some private foundation that wants to step up and provide something. Also MSD has grants that could be applied to the storm management part of the project.

Two later phases call for redoing the entire sidewalk with pavement to help with stormwater management, installing rain gardens at intersections and adding pedestrian signals for those with limited sight and hearing capability, Freeland said.

Slow down, you move too fast

Like other business owners in the area, Peter Spoto, owner of the City Diner on Grand, says he's happy with the project.

"I'm certainly for it," he said. "It's just going to beautify the area and attract more people down here. The lane change (reduction in the number of lanes) has put some people off, but the people who live and work in the area are really happy with it because it actually slows down the traffic. Slowing down traffic, people tend to look more at what's on the street and that tends to help the business people out."

One of the best results of the trial period was the slowing traffic, Conway said.

The average speed on inside lanes was 48.3 mile an hour and 43 miles an hour on the outside lanes along Tower Grove Park, he said. "The first block was the speed was about 37 mph and when you got one block away from Arsenal heading south it was all the way up to 39 miles an hour. That was the average speed. That meant I have just as many cars driving 50 miles an hour as 30 on a very narrow-lane street."

The predictable result of all that speed was accidents -- 76 accidents from January through August, many of them serious, Conway said. "Since we slowed down traffic the number has dropped," he said.

"Wow! I haven't seen a car go to 50 miles per hour down Grand in the middle of our business district since they did it (reduced the number of lanes), so I like it a lot," said Costello. She especially likes the fact that slower speeds are safer for pedestrians. "I have a 10-year-old granddaughter and now I don't freak out when we have to cross the street. Now the cars aren't flying down Grand," she said.

Costello said she's happy with the way the traffic signals have been synchronized but she'd like to see then in sync all the way down to Interstate 44. "That would make people happier, and it would save gas," she said.

As happy as she is with the project, Costello says she's glad the changes are being phased instead of being done all at once.

"I think it will be less disruptive for the businesses in Year 2 of the worst economic downturn since the Depression," she said. "I think the less disruptive right now is the best."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered transportation and roads.

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