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City to River in St. Louis Could Benefit from New DOT Strategy

A movement may be picking up to replace aging freeways in core cities with boulevards that open up land for development of buildings, tree-lined corridors and reconnect urban centers to their most prized assets.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is suggesting in its strategic plan that replacement of freeways with boulevards in some cities may be the more financially and environmentally sustainable tactic.

In St. Louis the group City to River seems to embody this idea, proposing the removal of Interstate 70 along the Mississippi River and Gateway Arch grounds in the city’s core and replace it with an at-grade signature boulevard.

According to City to River, this idea not only will help revitalize the riverfront and free up land for development, it makes financial sense. An aging freeway built in the 1960s, I-70 is in need of repair and many would like to see something done about the fact that it completely tears the city’s core asunder. A freeway lid has been discussed, but the cost of merely a three-block cover approaches $90 million. A boulevard could span nearly 20 blocks at an estimated cost of $70 million. In addition, the Gateway Arch grounds are being redesigned for a 50th anniversary in 2015, and the National Park Service, which manages the iconic riverfront space, has endorsed the removal of the freeway. Given the three choices of the status quo, a freeway lid and the boulevard, the latter seems to be the concept that would have the most positive effect with the least cost.

Such a project also might qualify for the so-called federal TIGER grant program that has funded projects with similar underlying themes of livability and long-term maintenance, and this or a future variation of the program could conceivably apply. The group City to River recently released an estimate that freed-up land could provide $1.1 billion in new development, and this fails to include the increased spending of tourists who would visit the area if it were improved. That sounds as good as any streetcar project funded through TIGER.

This is a truly exciting prospect for the St. Louis region. After years of sprawl and inner-city depopulation and decay, the city is making great strides in renewal, from the new City Garden to the revitalization of Old North St. Louis. City to River could be the transformational project that cements these changes for a more sustainable growth pattern going forward.

A new front door to the Gateway Arch grounds and river in St. Louis. (City to River)

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