Nowhere Road

What Slay was willing to give up for the stadium deal that died

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With the fiery crash of the Cardinals' stadium bill, Mayor Francis Slay is bouncing down a political road with as many potholes as Kingshighway, Grand, Jefferson, Market, Chippewa and Chouteau.

It's appropriate to mention those cratered and axle-shattering thoroughfares in the context of the political nightmare now facing Frankie the Saint -- they were left out of a quick backroom deal the city cut with state transportation officials during the heat of the recently deceased legislative session.

Hailed as proof positive that Slay is a can-do mayor, the result of this administrative agreement -- getting the state to take over control and maintenance of about 35 miles of primary roadways that run through the city -- has been trumpeted mightily by the mayor's handlers and broadcast slavishly by that sluggish Pulitzer pulpwood product down on Tucker Boulevard.

Problem is, the mayor bypassed the legislative process and cut the legs out from under most of the metro St. Louis delegation and their support of a much more muscular city-streets bill sponsored by Representative Tom Villa (D-St. Louis), pissing off people who should have been in his back pocket, enthusiastically pushing the ballpark legislation.

Problem is, Frankie and his lobbying team settled for less than half a loaf in their direct negotiations with the state's road-and-rail agency, political wiseheads say -- all in the interest of keeping any other issue from bubbling up, boiling over and scalding the Cardinals' doomed-at-delivery stadium subsidy.

The wiseheads say this is just one of several issues on which Frankie appeared willing to give away the City Hall store in order to keep everything in Jeff City copacetic for his great good friend Bill DeWitt and his feathered franchise.

The roster of mayoral rollover includes a $60 million cap on the state's historic tax credit program tagged onto the Senate's version of the stadium bill -- credits that are essential to downtown rehabilitation projects, including the mayor's cherished plan to renovate the Old Post Office. There was also a silent nod to an attempt by Representative Henry Rizzo (D-Kansas City) to rejigger the distressed-communities tax-credit program in a way that would make it easier for developers to dip their beaks.

Both travesties died last-second deaths in the waning hours of the session.

No such luck with the mayor's city-streets deal. Slay may live to regret it.

With a stadium bill that's deader than Jimmy Hoffa, a bloody-minded Cardinal partnership screaming about all that wasted money spent on lobbyists and politicians and an all-points search for a workable Plan B, the insiders note that even the mayor's legislative bypass on city streets may be headed south.

Listen carefully to what Missouri Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Wilson has to say: City and state officials are still negotiating this deal, more than a month after it first came to light. Oh, and by the way, says Wilson, don't count on the state's being as zealous and aggressive about clearing snow from these targeted roadways. The state's snowplows will be busy handling MoDOT's top priority in the region -- clearing Interstates 44, 70, 64, 55 and 270.

"Taking over all these roads is a concern for us -- we don't have additional money or personnel," she says. "If you give everything to MoDOT, your level of service isn't going to be what it is right now."

The major sticking point: The state doesn't want to pick up the tab for sidewalks, curbs, striping, signals, crosswalks, drainage, parking meters and street lights, all of the standard accoutrements of a busy city byway. Wilson says the state is negotiating for something well south of full ownership of major arteries such as Broadway, Gravois, Manchester, Page and Riverview.

And, at one point in the dickering, the state wanted the city to give back money it already spends on routine repaving of about 30 miles of primary streets, but Wilson says the state is no longer making this demand.

This is the same impasse that emerged shortly after the mayor and his handlers thought they had a sealed deal, the same roadblock that has always threatened to unravel this trust-us handshake with the state. And it has city streets staffers muttering to themselves that Slay's deal may actually wind up costing the city money rather than saving it a packet.

"We got hoosiered again,'' says one civic heavyweight.

Not so, says Wilson. If this deal ever gets ironed out, the state will be on the hook for $7 million a year in maintenance and construction costs, including the replacement of shaky bridges and the repaving of potholed street surfaces.

"We don't have any new money for that, and the city's not offering to give us the money they'd normally spend," she says. "There's no money changing hands here between us and the city."

Maybe so. Maybe not. But what's clear is that the mayor may have settled for even less of a loaf than he thought he did.

Worse yet, his smooth legislative footwork ruined the last best chance for the passage of Villa's bill, the insiders say, legislation that would force the state to take ownership and pick up the maintenance tab on 77 miles of essential roadways running through the city -- just as they do in every other two-stoplight town and cow-studded county in Missouri, except that city that is a county unto itself, the city of St. Louis.

Villa's bill would have reversed an early-1950s decision made by officials of a much richer, much more populated city to opt out of letting the state own and maintain "principal arterial roads" -- bureaucratese for streets such as Chippewa that turn into state highways at the city line.

With a $500 million transportation bill chugging down the legislative pike this year, tied to a statewide referendum on a sales- and gasoline-tax increase that will go to the voters in August, Villa figured his bill would be a lead-pipe cinch to end that historical mistake and at least edge St. Louis ahead of Springfield and its 68 miles of state-controlled streets and roads. St. Louis would still trail Kansas City and its 92 miles, according to figures compiled by the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council.

All the more reason for Villa to see his bill as an easy-to-swallow quid pro quo for those rural legislators hungrily eyeing new ribbons of blacktop for their districts and willing to trade the city some bucks for Bi-State buses and a piddling streets bill that would still give Kansas City bragging rights.

"What I wanted, in a perfect world, was for the city of St. Louis to be treated just like all the other counties in Missouri so that when a state highway crosses the city limits, the state would take care of it," Villa says. "The truth is, the lion's share of the largesse from this sales- and gas-tax increase will come from St. Louis and Kansas City. Here we go again -- we give the money and the Missouri Department of Transportation thumbs its nose at the city? Shame on us for letting that happen. You only get so many bites at that proverbial transportation apple."

Now, tracking the who-shot-John of all of this gets a little tricky, with neither the state nor the city willing to admit who started talking about a lesser deal than the one called for in Villa's bill. MoDOT's Wilson says her agency initiated the discussion "out of the goodness of our heart" -- a line delivered with a lighthearted chuckle.

And at the height of Villa's mighty anger about getting clotheslined by the city -- a passion that caused seventeen St. Louis-area legislators to cosign an April 4 letter of protest to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission -- Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff, had a lobbyist track him down to relay a message that he didn't initiate the deal.

"That's a damn lie," says Representative Charles Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis), chairman of the House Appropriations-Social Services Committee and second-ranking member of the budget committee.

Troupe is still angry at getting undercut by the mayor, but what bothers him more is Slay's failure to stick up for social services that were savaged during the Legislature's draconian budget-slicing. He minces no words about what he thinks of Slay, comparing him to his two predecessors, Clarence Harmon and Freeman Bosley Jr.

"Slay's starting to remind me of Harmon," says Troupe, a longtime transit-union official. "He keeps going the way he's going and he's going to be just as relevant as Harmon was when he left office. Slay, Harmon and Bosley -- they're little men with elevator shoes, looking for their gender."

To smooth the feathers of legislators such as Villa and Troupe and keep them in line for the statewide sales- and gasoline-tax referendum to come, Governor Bob Holden has promised to incrementally increase the number of miles of city streets taken over by the state over the next few years, edging the total toward the 77 miles set forth in Villa's bill.

But ol' One-Term Bob might not be around to keep that promise. With that statewide referendum on roads taking place in the heat of August, the city is effectively blocked from asking voters for any sales-tax increase to handle burgeoning pothole problems on its own.

And what kind of gravy can St. Louis expect from this transportation referendum? Not as much as advertised, say the wiseheads, who point out that the $22 million supposedly earmarked for Bi-State will barely be enough to restore the transit agency's recent cuts and isn't guaranteed money.

"There's less there than meets the eye," says one player.

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