Economic Development

This Week in Urbanism: North South MetroLink | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

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You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism from Missouri-Metro

I’m your host, Brian Adler. This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast.

Today is April 1st, 2022, and today, we’re going to continue talking about things that move on rails. Rather, we’re going to discuss the proposed North-South MetroLink expansion in St. Louis!

We bash our MetroLink system a lot. That kind of goes with being a local, right? We notice the obvious faults in things near our homes, and granted, there are a host of ways in which our MetroLink light-rail system could be improved. But, before touching on that, I want to just highlight some of the incredible functionality that already exists within this system. Consider that the system spans 46 miles between two states: Missouri and Illinois. It has two lines and 38 total stations. It’s on time performance is, according to Bi-State, 98%. Light-rail is also an economic powerhouse. Bi-State provides some fascinating statistics like a over $9 billion in investment and development adjacent to MetroLink stations since 2011 alone – and it’s probably much more now than when this appears to have been updated in 2011.

And, of course, beyond economic impact it also has real potential in moving people. It connects our international airport to premier research institutions like UMSL, Washington University, and SLU. It reaches our most dense Central Corridor neighborhoods and employment centers like Clayton, University City, the Central West End, DeBaliviere Place, and Downtown. It provides access to the Enterprise Center and Busch Stadium, and even reaches some suburbs in Illinois and otherwise Westward toward Shrewsbury.

And yet, despite that pretty solid performance – something rather unmatched with most mid-sized cities, the system still leaves something to be desired in frequency and access to neighborhoods that have historically seen disinvestment or outright structural and systemic impacts of racism. Like most things – there’s a good bit of nuance. The system has some major successes and still considerable room for improvement. These are two true things that can exist at the same time. If you’re a resident in North St. Louis City or North St. Louis County or even dense South City neighborhoods like Dutchtown or Tower Grove South or Marine Villa, you are going to either have to drive, bike, or take a bus up to a MetroLink station. That’s despite considerable residential density and opportunity for light-rail corridors. This really is a problem for the Northside neighborhoods that don’t see much investment and where residents are more likely to have fewer transportation options due to income limitations. The answer, you might say, is for these folks to take the bus. While that ordinarily could be a decent option, the benefits of fixed-rail transit have become readily apparent as our bus system has been decimated by issues relating to the pandemic. Bi-State and Metro have cut back on both routes and frequencies, with busses oftentimes taking an hour or more for certain routes. The #95 Kingshighway has a 30-minute peak, and if your bus simply doesn’t show, you’ll have to wait for the next. These are some pretty big issues.

Of course, we should be investing more in our bus network, and in fairness to Bi-State, they are raising salaries and benefits and holding hiring fairs. They’re making some progress! Still, the variability of bus routes showcases how better access to light rail can add some transit stability.

That’s why, since the last major MetroLink expansions in the early 2000s, residents have often been clamoring for a MetroLink expansion. Specifically, a North-South MetroLink expansion that could reach some of the neighborhoods I talked about earlier to bring some better economic opportunities and transit access to more people. It has been a long-running goal of various political administrations, and unfortunately one that has often slipped a bit. The unfortunate fact is that it’s hard and extremely expensive to build additional light-rail networks. What made the original MetroLink line easy, at least in relative terms, is that a lot of the track and right-of-way already existed and MetroLink commandeered some of what was already built-out. Sure, they had to build some new stations and what not, but the actual process of acquiring land and laying track is time-consuming, expensive, and riddled with issues where you might have to eminent domain folks along the way. Overall, not the most process – and it’s one that could several hundred million or even a billion dollars of local, regional, and Federal funds. Which can obviously be a great investment, but still one that requires a big upfront expense. Public infrastructure is excellent and reaps rewards down the line – so don’t get me wrong, we still should do this. This is just some of the context that outlines the difficulty of transit, specifically light-rail, expansion.

One of the main complaints of rail proponents is the tendency of local officials to simply keep ordering new studies to outline expansion opportunities and feasibility. There have been actually over a dozen, believe it or not, and when you keep adding additional delays, you have to then do another study. It makes sense because population and commercial dynamics change, but also showcases the relatively static nature of the North-South MetroLink expansion.

Even with those delays, there have been a few recent “shot-in-the-arm” situations for the system. In 2017, voters in the City of St. Louis approved a new tax to add some funds for rail expansion. The tax has so far generated over $40 million in revenue and is likely to reach perhaps $50 or $51 million dollars at the end of the coming fiscal year. That’s great! These funds are likely to be most useful when contributing to the funds that the Federal government would likely require if they fund a substantial portion, which they would likely do.

East West Gateway, our transit planning organization, also released an updated alignment map in 2019, which gives us the clearest and most up-to-date actual plan with details including proposed stations and locations. This plan would add a North-South MetroLink line that connects with the current system in Downtown St. Louis. It would then go South, have a stop on Chouteau before wrapping around Jefferson Ave. It would then hit Jefferson and Park, Jefferson and Russel, Jefferson and Sidney, Jefferson and Arsenal, Jefferson and Cherokee, and finally Jefferson and Chippewa. North from Downtown, it would hit around Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. and 14th St, then continue onward toward N 20th St and Cass, then perhaps wrap Northward or Westward around the NGA headquarters, before then intersecting with Natural Bridge and ending at Fairground Park. The alignment on the north end will, apparently, be studied in future phases. And, of course, that may in fact be happening now as Mayor Jones and County Executive Page announced a new study at the end of 2021 that would also look into further expansion into the County to hit even more neighborhoods.

So, with all that, is there perhaps actually some room for hope that we may actually see some progress soon after so long? I certainly hope so. At least, there are reasons to be optimistic. For one, the City and County received a huge sum of money from the Federal Infrastructure bill passed last year that both the Mayor and County Executive are adamantly saying should and must lead to MetroLink expansion.

Unfortunately, we’re likely to wait at least a little while longer while the next phase of the study process is completed. However, we’re at a critical moment here where the City and County leadership are aligned on an overall outcome. Moreover, the city has a dedicated and growing base of funds to be used specifically for transit expansion. And, finally, the Federal Infrastructure bill could fill in the major gaps – and luckily, leadership in the region seems keen on using it for this purpose (among many others). So will we see the MetroLink expansion soon?

Well, probably not this year or the next, but we’ll probably and hopefully have an updated study in not too long just as all the funds are ready to be used. If there is a general agreement on the proposed line in the next couple of years and a reliable source of funding, perhaps we could see the first stages of the MetroLink expansion begin in the next few years. Construction could take upwards of a decade with environmental reviews, planning, construction, demolitions, etc. – but the slow progress will lead to an important, generationally useful piece of public transportation infrastructure should it finally see the light of day.

So, This Week in Urbanism, enjoy a dose of optimism about the North-South MetroLink expansion! While there’s nothing concrete at the moment, it seems we may be closer than ever toward seeing something actually happen soon.

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

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