Expanded public transit in St. Louis inches forward | Crain's St. Louis

Expanded public transit in St. Louis inches forward

The county and city of St. Louis are both in the study phase of expanding the MetroLink public transit system. | Photo by Derek Lee/Crain's St. Louis

St. Louis city voters supported a MetroLink expansion in the April election, but the route between the polls and new stations is shaping up to be long and winding.

Voters approved a local sales tax increase that will generate an estimated $12 million a year earmarked to research, plan and eventually contribute to constructing a MetroLink extension. City officials hope it will be just the first leg in a major expansion of the light rail system. But an ambitious undertaking could still face some rough track, especially if the region’s political leaders can’t come together on a preferred project.

“We have some opportunities here to help improve access to jobs, education and healthcare,” said Kim Cella, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, a nonprofit advocacy group. “So our organization strongly supports efforts in all parts of the region, but are very much advocating for a project backed by the elected officials from all parts of the region and that financing be a part of that process because we can’t have one without the other.”

Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay supported a north-south route extending from near St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus in north St. Louis County through downtown and alongside Interstate 55 into south St. Louis and south St. Louis County, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report late last year. A study of the north-south corridor, funded with cash from the city parking division, is already underway, city officials said.

The April sales tax increase of half a cent on every dollar will, in total, raise an estimated $20 million annually to be spent on programs aimed at neighborhood revitalization, workforce development, public safety and infrastructure projects. The $12 million portion set aside exclusively for MetroLink would provide only a small fraction of the funding needed for such an expansive extension.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger favors investigating other corridors, although he’s downplayed the idea that he and the former mayor were at odds over proposed routes in interviews with St. Louis Public Radio and other media outlets.

The county is currently procuring a contract that will lead to three corridor studies, according to representatives from the county executive's office. Stenger wants to research a Daniel Boone line from the Clayton station to Westport, a MetroSouth line from the Shrewsbury station to Butler Hill Road and a MetroNorth line from the Hanley station to near Interstate 270. The county will be paying for its studies with a portion of the mass transit sales tax passed by voters in 2010.

An expanded study of the originally proposed MetroNorth line will now also include a possible connector that would extend the route into Ferguson and other portions of north St. Louis County and link with the proposed north-south line through St. Louis city. That represents something of a departure from the original county study proposals, which didn’t include the north-south corridor.

Still, county leadership isn’t married to one route.

“In order to determine which new MetroLink routes best meet federal criteria for matching funding, we must have the full picture of any potential expansion,” said Cordell Whitlock, director of communications for Stenger’s office. “Which route will best connect people to jobs? Which line would be most cost-effective? Which will provide the greatest relief from traffic congestion? Exactly where might new train lines spark economic development? A full study of all possible routes will provide answers to these questions.”

Collaboration over competition

Cella, of Citizens for Modern Transit, wants to encourage elected officials to opt for collaboration over competition when evaluating routes since a united front will likely increase the region’s chances for securing federal funding to cover a portion of any project. She also hopes politicians and planners consider more than just potential ridership when backing a route.

“We want to ensure the next project selected is a regional project that provides public transit benefits to both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County and takes into account not only the rides provided, but the economic development and social equity opportunities of light rail,” she said.       

The city’s study of a north-south extension is already underway, according to Don Roe, director of St. Louis’ Planning and Urban Design Agency. He said officials will take all those factors into account, ideally integrating any extension into the existing transit system in a way that optimizes its impact all the way down the line.

“So the route alignments we have are trying to maximize the development opportunities along those lines,” Roe said. “And when I say development opportunities, it means two things. It means development specifically around the station and also access to opportunities — development opportunities like jobs, going to school, getting to healthcare in an efficient way.”

Roe said city officials haven’t set a specific starting point for what will likely be a multiphase expansion. He also emphasized that new St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, Stenger and other elected officials from across the region regularly meet to discuss public transit issues including ridership and crime rates, which have been a concern.

Eventually, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments’ board of directors will adopt an expansion project. The council is the metropolitan planning organization for the area, and its board is made up of citizens and elected officials from the region, including Krewson and Stenger. So the studies by the city and county are not necessarily competing or conflicting, Roe said.

 “I think this is an important point. When we’re making solid decisions, evaluating multiple routes is a good thing,” said Roe, a city official. “The county will have some routes they’ll be looking at and doing that study is great.”

None of the studies will be completed until next year, and they represent just the first stop along what will be anything but a fast track. But Roe said he is excited about all the research efforts and city voters’ willingness to support public transit with their own pocketbooks.  

 “There’s a certain amount of type A in me that wishes something would happen very, very quickly,” Roe said. “But, of course, it is a major infrastructure project. That takes time.”

September 18, 2017 - 6:20pm