South County Connector: Still an Opportunity to Toll
Last week, Saint Louis County officials announced that the proposed $120 million South County Connector had been placed on hold. The proposal called for a four-lane route between Hanley Road and River des Peres Boulevard, with the purpose of providing better north-south traffic movement between Clayton and Maplewood. While the project has drawn criticism for aiding sprawl and failing to resolving the region’s major bottlenecks, the major stumbling block was funding the expensive project.
As we wrote when the project was proposed last year, while there are constitutional issues with MoDOT tolling, Saint Louis County is free to do so. If the county were to place high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the connector, they not only would have a reliable local funding source, but also a way to mitigate the problems of induced demand on the new roadway. As we wrote last year:
HOT routes allow high-occupancy vehicles (HOV) free use of the road while charging a fee to solo drivers. . . . Toll roads have reduced congestion and been financially successful in other localities. An example is State Hwy. 550 in Texas, which will connect two major highways with a tollway outside of Brownsville. Local officials believe the highway will serve important transportation needs, and the toll’s estimated revenue of $1 million per year makes the $41 million price tag more manageable. In California, private developers constructed HOT lanes on SR-91 in Orange County. By transferring less essential travel to non-peak times and public transportation, Orange County tollways have reduced peak congestion by more than 25 percent on most roads. The SR-91 lanes have proven successful in reducing congestion and do not take any money from general transportation funds.
That would be a win-win for both drivers and the local taxpayers. In addition, with all the criticism of the proposed connector as unnecessary, a toll-feasibility study might help to show whether there is sufficient demand for a $120 million project. If traffic models show that the connector cannot generate sufficient revenue to cover local expenses (the federal government will likely cover a large portion of the costs), that would be evidence against building the road in the first place.