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Better Together St. Louis Raises My Suspicions

I’m generally in favor of reducing the number of government entities in the St. Louis region. The 2011 Where We Stand report (p88) sums up the numbers:

We rely on local government for a wide array of services including public education, health and safety, infrastructure, environmental protection and sanitation, public housing, and arts and cultural support.

• The St. Louis region continues to be ranked in the top three for overall number of governmental units, as well as for the ratio of governments to population.

Depending on perspective, the region’s local government structure can be seen as the 3rd most fragmented or the 3rd most accessible to its citizens and businesses.

• With 884 individual units of government,

St. Louis ranks 3rd only to Pittsburgh and Denver among our peer regions in ratio of local governments to citizens.

For the 35 peer regions, the average number of governmental units has decreased from 399 in 2002 to 379 in 2007.

• Of the 35 regions, 20 have fewer governmental units in 2007 than they had in 2002.

In the St. Louis region, the number of units of local government continues to increase.

• Less than half of local government units in the St. Louis region are general-purpose governments, such as counties, municipalities, and townships.

• In 2007, the St. Louis region had 9.8 municipalities per 100,000 population, up from 8.9 municipalities per 100,000 in 2002.

A majority of area local governments have been established for specific functions, including school districts, special taxing districts, or other special district governments.

• Almost all of these special district governments perform a single task, such as drainage and flood control, soil and water conservation, fire protection, water supply, or housing and community development.

• The St. Louis region’s ratio of school districts per population ranked 2nd in 2007 with 4.8 per 100,000 population; slightly lower than the 5.0 per 100,000 reported in 2002.

I’m of the belief that more units of government isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, just as fewer isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. I do know the St. Louis region

Herbert (Bert) Walker III, a cousin of George Herbert Walker Bush, speaking at the Better Together kickoff event. Emcees from KMOX, John Hancock and Michael Kelley
George Herbert (Bert) Walker III, a 1st cousin of former president George Herbert Walker Bush, speaking at the Better Together kickoff event. Emcees from KMOX, John Hancock and Michael Kelley, on the right

With this in mind you might think I’d be a cheerleader for the new Better Together Saint Louis effort.

Sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy, Better Together is a grassroots project born in response to growing public interest in addressing the fragmented nature of local government throughout St. Louis City and County, which dates back to 1876, when St. Louis City broke away from St. Louis County.

The resulting absence of a cohesive governmental structure left a void and many smaller governments formed to fill it. This is why the 1.3 million people who call St. Louis home are served by 116 local governments, which include St. Louis City and County, as well as 91 municipalities and 23 fire districts. The costs associated with funding all 116 governments (excluding airport and water service fees) has reached a staggering $2 billion per year. To-date, there has been no comprehensive single study that has looked across the City and County to determine whether the region could improve both service and cost by streamlining and eliminating redundancies and better serve the people of St. Louis.

Better Together is neither putting forth nor advocating for a specific plan to such end, but rather seeks to act as a facilitator, a resource for information and tools, and a catalyst to spark discussion. Accordingly, we will drive an inclusive, transparent process of developing and assembling valuable information other organizations can use to craft their own plans for what the future of the region should look like, as well as judge plans put forth by others.

I remain a skeptic for a variety of reasons:

  • As I explained earlier, the region is much larger and more complex than just St. Louis City & County.
  • The Missouri Council for a Better Economy was started by Rex Sinquefield, a billionaire seeking to alter tax policy in his favor.
  • “Sponsored by” and “grassroots” in the same sentence! Really, how exactly does that work? Sounds like this might be astroturfing.
  • Just collecting data for the community to decide what to do with it, but the name and MCBE clearly shows reunification as the intent.  Plus, data from the many school districts isn’t being collected because they don’t want to get “bogged down.”  If the mission is to collect data on how tax money is being spent it makes sense to look at it all — what’s the hurry?

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the above reasons I listed.

Region:

Forty-six percent of the region’s population isn’t the region. Granted, this 46% live in the city or county that carry the region’s name. Still, I think something well over 50% is required to discuss a topic as regional in nature. Better together is clearly focused on the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County only, not the region.

MCBE:

From their “About Us” as of 8:30am yesterday “The studies were funded by MCBE, whose sole donor until now has been Rex Sinquefield, a retired investment fund executive and philanthropist.” Oh but they told me he hasn’t given any money in a year. Rex is a fan of chess and I can see a strategy playing out of him giving enough money to fund MCBE for a couple of years  — that way it can be paid he’s the sole donor from the past, but not now. Question for MCBE, how many donors since the last donation from Rex?

Grassroots:

Calling yourself grassroots doesn’t mean you’re actually a grassroots movement. The Better Together STL materials indicate it’s a project of MCBE, not a separate organization. I didn’t find any such organization listed with the Secretary of State. The website  does list a board which is comprised of the powerful & elite of local politics and business. Also on this “board” — Rex’s Chief of Staff. Those in attendance at the kickoff represent more of the same — nothing remotely grassroots about it.

Data:

Several issues here. The speakers all said they’re just collecting data so we know what we spend and where — sounds reasonable. But everywhere you look at Better Together and MCBE the final goal is clear — unification of some sorts. And schools are a big part of where our tax money is spent and school districts are governmental entities just like fire protection districts, we should look at education too if the goal is an honest self evaluation.

While I support reducing the number of units of government my goal isn’t to provide the same services for less money, as was stated several times. My goal would be to provide more services distributed more evenly for the same money.

Unfortunately, I see Better Together  & MCBE as a backdoor to Rex’s radical tax policies — no state income taxes, no city earnings taxes, higher property & sales taxes.  The wealthy’s fantasy to get out of paying their share, they can easily buy any services the community can’t afford to provide.   Some will claim this has bipartisan support, but our Democrats are often that in name only, they’re as fiscally conservative policy-wise as far-right Republicans.  I keep hoping a local version of Bernie Sanders will appear. I want to believe  this is an altruistic effort, but I’m not gullible.

I’d like to see an actual grassroots effort look at our region with an open mind — perhaps even concluding nothing should change with respect to the relationship between the city & county.

— Steve Patterson

 

Two New Outlet Malls In Chesterfield Valley: Prestige Vs. Premium

This year two competing outlet malls opened in the Chesterfield valley, not far from each other. I had a chance recently to visit both by car, a rental. I’d hoped to visit one or both via MetroBus so I could have my wheelchair.  Before you question the idea, the #258 MetroBus stops in the valley every 20-60 minutes weekdays.

The two opened three weeks apart:

  1. Taubman Prestige Outlets on August 2, 2013
  2. St. Louis Premium Outlets on August 22, 2013

There was debate about St. Louis being able to support two outlet malls just 4+ miles apart, in addition to the existing St. Louis Outlet Mall in Hazelwood that opened in November 2003. For now I’ll focus on the two new outlets by Taubman and Simon Properties:

Both developers are publicly traded companies with impressive track records in the retail world. But Simon, the largest U.S. shopping mall owner, has been in the outlet business a lot longer.

Linda Humphers, who tracks the outlet mall industry for the International Council of Shopping Centers as editor of Value Retail News, noted that Simon has more than 60 outlet centers in the U.S. compared to basically two for Taubman. (Taubman and Simon both have many full-priced malls in their portfolios.) (stltoday.com)

Taubman, the underdog, opened first. Like many, I tend to lean in favor of the underdog. But I knew that many shoppers more impressed by Chesterfield’s second outlet mall. With all this background I visited both, in the order they opened, on Monday October 28th. Again, I drove a rental car we had for the weekend because both would require using the shoulder for the mile from the closest bus stop.

Similarities:

  • Highly visible from I-64
  • Site was underwater during the Flood of 1993
  • Primarily internally focused
  • Upscale/desirable retail outlets
  • Multiple entrance points from parking lot
  • One level, open air design
  • Indoor, centrally-located, food court
  • Green design elements like rain gardens to handle water runoff

For the differences many have focused on the number & importance of stores, but I’m not going to debate Ralph Lauren (Taubman) vs Coach (STL Premium). My focus is on the layout, approach, physical design, etc.

Taubman Prestige Outlets

Signage is prominent at the several auto entrances
Signage is prominent at the several auto entrances
Green storm water management is attractive, should be highly functional
Green storm water management is attractive, should be highly functional
The white/light color scheme of the exterior doesn't feel upscale to me
The white/light color scheme of the exterior doesn’t feel upscale to me
A typical entry into the interior walkway
A typical entry into the interior walkway
The entrance points are wide and use nice materials, but they feel generic
The entrance points are wide and use nice materials, but they feel generic
Standing at the center looking at the open west end
Standing at the center looking at the open west end

 

Looking east from the center
Looking east from the center

 

The food court building at the center
The food court building at the center
The directory shows the linear design, parking is focused between the mall and highway outer drive
The directory shows the linear design, parking is focused between the mall and highway outer drive

 

Crosswalks connect disabled parking to the mall entrances, but the angle was confusing for new construction
Crosswalks connect disabled parking to the mall entrances, but the angle was confusing for new construction

St. Louis Premium Outlets

This mall is in the center of a much larger site that'll eventually all be developed.  The entrance signs have room for other projects besides the outlet mall
This mall is in the center of a much larger site that’ll eventually all be developed. The entrance signs have room for other projects besides the outlet mall
Outlet Mall Drive approaching the mall
Outlet Blvd approaching the mall
As you turn off of Outlet Blvd into the mall the signage gets specific
As you turn off of Outlet Blvd into the mall the signage gets specific
An ADA pedestrian access route was planned from the start to connect to future adjacent development
Between the entry drive and parking is a pedestrian access route connecting to future adjacent development
Well marked crosswalks to the disabled parking
Well marked crosswalks to the disabled parking
The medium to dark color scheme looks richer to me
The medium to dark color scheme looks richer to me
Entrances are more interesting, false side windows relieve otherwise blank walls.
Entrances are more interesting, false side windows relieve otherwise blank walls.
A children's playground is next to the food court in the center
A children’s playground is next to the food court in the center
The directory shows this mall is more than a shingle corridor. The various colors represent different districts with local names like "Meramec River District"
The directory shows this mall is more than a shingle corridor. The various colors represent different districts with local names like “Meramec River District”
The corridors are not very interesting
The corridors are not very interesting
I got excited when I saw the bus plaza, but then I realized it's for tourist buses, not public transportation
I got excited when I saw the bus plaza, but then I realized it’s for tourist buses, not public transportation

My Conclusions

Both malls will do fine initially, but the smaller Taubman mall will fade out quicker. It feels smaller, less generous, since it’s shoehorned in between the highway and a levee. It won’t close  for many years, it’ll just be the less desirable outlet mall, though still ahead of Hazelwood’s decade-old St. Louis Outlet Mall.

The St. Louis Premium Outlets area will get built up over the next 5-10 years, hotels, restaurants and other retail will be added. They’ve planned ahead so as it gets built out it’ll be connected by a sidewalk network. Nothing you’d call super walkable, but minimally acceptable. The location is right as you enter from St. Charles County, so it’s convenient to many.

— Steve Patterson

 

Poll: Should schools be forced to take students from unaccredited districts?

The poll this week is an exact duplicate of a poll run by the St. Louis Business Journal in June:

Should schools be forced to take students from unaccredited districts?

  • Yes, education is that important
  • No, it isn’t fair to taxpayers and students

I couldn’t come up with any better phrasing, so it’ll have to do.

STLSPJ
Left to right: Sharon Reed (KMOV), Eric Knost, Mehlville superintendent, Ty McNichols, Normandy superintendent, and moderator from St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

Unaccredited schools are now paying overcrowded schools to accept transfer students. The transfer process was chaotic. Is this really the best we can do as a region?

The poll is in the right sidebar for a week.

— Steve Patterson

 

Poll Results on Vehicles Per Licensed Driver

There are many ways to measure and compare regions/states on how auto-centric they are. For the poll last week I selected number of vehicles per licensed driver. The results of the poll are near the end but first I want to share other data.

Ford Focus at the 2011 St. Louis Auto Show
Ford Focus at the 2011 St. Louis Auto Show

Examples of vehicle miles traveled per capita in 2005:

  • 1) New York City metro: 5,889.9
  • 11) Chicago metro: 7,540.5
  • 22) Seattle metro: 8,552.6
  • 37) Wichita: 9,237.2
  • 46) Minneapolis metro: 9,585.0
  • 55) Austin metro: 10,220.3
  • 64) Kansas City metro: 10,726.2
  • 77) St. Louis metro: 11,511.4 
  • 88) Nashville metro: 12,275.4
  • 92) Oklahoma City metro: 12,325.0

I see this as good evidence our region is too auto dependent, 76 metro areas had less vehicles miles per person than we did in 2005! But maybe we’ve peaked:

When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter, according to an analysis by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives, an investment research company. As of April 2013, the number of miles driven per person was nearly 9 percent below the peak and equal to where the country was in January 1995. Part of the explanation certainly lies in the recession, because cash-strapped Americans could not afford new cars, and the unemployed weren’t going to work anyway. But by many measures the decrease in driving preceded the downturn and appears to be persisting now that recovery is under way. The next few years will be telling. (New York Times)

Even if we’ve declined since 2005 like everyone else, we’re still driving considerably more miles per capita than 76 other regions.

Here are the results from last week’s poll:

Q: How many vehicles per licensed driver in your household?

  1. One+, but less than two 33 [45.21%]
  2. Less than one, more than zero 21 [28.77%]
  3. Two+, but less than three 9 [12.33%]
  4. Zero 6 [8.22%]
  5. Three+ 4 [5.48%]

I’ll admit I broke an important rule when it comes to polls — keeping the answers uniform. It appears the readers who responded don’t have an excess of vehicles, with over 8% saying their household has zero cars per licensed driver.

— Steve Patterson

 

BRT: Readers Picked I-64 BRT Route Between Downtown and Chesterfield

In the poll last week, readers preferred the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route going out I-64 to Chesterfield. There was no clear preference among the other three options for a second choice to submit to federal authorities for a funding request. As I mentioned in my original post, here are the four routes being studied:

From MovingTransitForward.org:

These four potential BRT routes are options for improving transit connections between St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis. One of the study’s main goals is to address the need for quick, direct travel from neighborhoods north and south of Downtown St. Louis to employers located in north and west St. Louis County. The “Central Corridor” stretching from Downtown St. Louis to the Central West End and Clayton still holds the region’s largest concentration of jobs, but the largest job growth is occurring in places like Chesterfield, Earth City, and St. Charles – areas easily accessible by highway, but currently not by public transit. The type of BRT service currently being studied is intended to expand access and improve travel time to those job opportunities – of particular importance to reverse commuters traveling to major job centers in suburban areas – while also providing a premium transit alternative for car commuters. The Rapid Transit Connector Study will identify candidates for Metro’s first two BRT routes; Metro will continue to work with the region to identify future BRT routes. Other transit options identified in Moving Transit Forward, such as expansions of the MetroLink System, are intended to meet other long-term goals such as strengthening neighborhoods and encouraging transit-oriented development.
Alternatives analysis involves evaluating the performance of each alternative along parameters including ridership, expanded access to key destinations, travel time savings, and land use benefits. These technical outcomes will be combined with public input to identify the two potential projects most likely to meet project goals, benefit the region, and successfully compete for federal funding.

Four alternative BRT routes, click image to view larger version
Four alternative BRT routes, click image to view larger version

Here are the results from last week’s poll:

Q: Which two of the four Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes would you like to see planners seek federal funding (pick 2)

  1. I-64 Highway BRT 27 [31.03%]
  2. None 17 [19.54%]
  3. West Florissant-Natural Bridge BRT 16 [18.39%]
  4. Page Avenue BRT 16 [18.39%]
  5. Halls-Ferry Riverview BRT 8 [9.2%]
  6. Unsure/no opinion 3 [3.45%]

I like the idea of a Bus Rapid Transit route to Chesterfield, but I wonder if terminating the route at Chesterfield Mall is best. At this moment there’s interest in the two new outlet malls in the Chesterfield valley, but it’s unclear to me if the valley or mall is a better terminus point. I’d like to know the logic behind this decision, likely because it would serve more people.

The Halls-Ferry Riverview route received half as many votes as the West Florissant-Natural Bridge & Page Ave routes. I like both of these routes, they both side through parts of St. Louis that could benefit from improved transit.

My guess is the I-64 & West Florissant-Natural Bridge & Page routes will be the two selected for submission for federal funding. Two routes would have a stop one block away, another 5 blocks away, and Halls-Ferry route 11 blocks east. I’m in a good place, but I want to make sure any investment in new infrastructure serves an accepting public. I know city residents will go to Chesterfield for work, but will Chesterfield residents take a bus, albeit a nice bus, into the city rather than drive? I certainly hope so!

— Steve Patterson

 

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