The Worm Turns

In the '50s, St. Louis took over maintenance of state roads in the city. Now, the city can't give back that responsibility.

May 9, 2001 at 4:00 am
Maybe the last chance folks in St. Louis had for decent treatment by state government was the year after Daniel Boone died in Missouri, when the first state capitol was just a few miles upriver, in St. Charles. But in 1826, the Capitol and the Legislature were moved 114 miles west to the frontier town of Jefferson City, putting state decision-makers virtually equidistant from Kansas City and St. Louis -- in other words, as far away from one of the state's biggest cities as possible without getting too close to the other.

No one knows this better than Tom Villa, who is on his second tour of duty in Jeff City. He was a state rep from 1974-84, serving as majority floor leader for four years. He came back to the city to be aldermanic president from 1987-95, presiding over the chamber named for his father, Albert "Red" Villa, who was a St. Louis alderman for 47 years. Tom, the son and scion of the political clan, was destined to be mayor. But that, as they say, is another story. Villa lost his bid for mayor in 1993 and last fall returned to that Athens on the Missouri River as state rep from South City's 108th District.

Things haven't changed. The battles Villa fought in the '70s and '80s continue. And for the city in particular and the metro area in general, the urban cause is often a lost one in the Missouri General Assembly. "A lot of these outstate guys don't want to give the city any more money," says Villa. "We're viewed like Molokai, the old leper colony. They just don't like us."

The most recent example -- and no, let's not mention Ballpark Village or the ballpark itself -- is Villa's continuing attempt to have the state take over maintenance of major roads that run through the city. Such arterial roads -- Grand Boulevard, Page Avenue, the Forest Park Parkway, Gravois Avenue, Kingshighway -- are maintained by the city. Once any of those roads crosses into St. Louis County, it's maintained by the Missouri Department of Transportation. Villa's bill having those roads taken over by the state stalled after making it out of committee.

The city, in its dual function as a city and a county, is the only jurisdiction of the state's 114 counties in which the state maintains no roads other than interstate highways. Villa's bill would have turned 78 miles of roads over to the state. The city took responsibility for the roads in 1952 in a move that Villa describes as being made by "someone who had the vision of Helen Keller.

"When the city had all the money, all the roadbuilding equipment and all the population, we opted to take care of our own arterial roads. The city was flush. We felt like we could take better care of our roads," Villa says. "Obviously the worm has turned."

Situations have changed, but don't look for sympathy -- or even common sense -- from the Legislature. Between the state money sent to the city during the desegregation suit and the state's covering half the note on the Trans World Dome, outstate legislators make a political living on St. Louis-bashing. Couple that with reports of voter irregularities and drive-by shootings, and Villa says the city is "kind of perceived as a barren wasteland of political ineptitude. We're not held in very high esteem."

So Villa's bill to get the state to take back the roads was dead until he met with Gov. Bob Holden's people, who were looking for a way to sweeten the transportation bill for urban legislators. But then the 78 miles of roads in Villa's bill dwindled to 58.4 miles. Next, a Senate committee cut it back to 36 miles. The $1.7 million per year it would cost the state to maintain 78 miles of major city streets looks like chump change in a $573 million transportation bill, but it's still big enough to cut.

Villa had one trump card he did not want to mention when he introduced the bill to the House Transportation Committee. "It was a committee that thought I was crazy when I submitted the bill," he says. "It's dominated by rural interests."

But if the Legislature drops the city roads from the gargantuan transportation bill, look for urban-advocacy groups to scrounge around for some plaintiffs -- any city resident might do -- and sue the state for discriminatory spending on road maintenance. That the city now has a majority African-American population could be cited in such a suit. Maxine Lipeles, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the Washington University School of Law, has been contacted by groups considering legal action.

The East-West Gateway Coordinating Council would not be part of that suit, but its executive director, Les Sterman, thinks the state should do for the city what it does for every other jurisdiction. "We view it as real discrimination," Sterman says. "The city never received anything for not having its roads included in the state system. Some of this is a historical accident, like a lot of things. The city's streets mainly were in existence before the state highway department came into being. It's a bizarre form of discrimination when the state designation on the roads literally stops at the city line."

After 180 years of Missouri statehood, fledgling attempts are being made by interests in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield to coordinate legislative efforts on urban issues, but don't look for those efforts to pave any city streets. Leave that to a judge.