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MetroLink's proposed $1 billion north-south rail in tough competition for federal funding

Metro car moving along tracks.
File Photo
St. Louis Public Radio
Transit officials said they hope federal funding will help cover the cost of a proposed MetroLink line that will operate between north and south St. Louis, but said there is much competition for transit grant dollars.

In its bid to acquire a portion of the approximately $1 billion in federal funding for a planned north-south light rail route for the St. Louis region, Metro Transit will have to compete with dozens of other proposals nationwide, officials said Wednesday at a meeting convened by the advocacy organization Citizens for Modern Transit.

Transit advocates and government officials have for years proposed variations of a new north-south route to complement the existing MetroLink system, which now largely connects the Metro East to the near west suburbs to better serve those in neighborhoods in north and south St. Louis.

“This is about the realization of a promise where we are making some of the investments in some of these areas of traditional divestment both in north city and south city, and committing federal dollars,” Bi-State Development President and CEO Taulby Roach said. Bi-State operates MetroLink and buses in the St. Louis region.

But Garnering federal grant money for the project could be difficult, officials said.

The project’s $1 billion price tag could be trimmed by using existing maintenance facilities and bridges instead of building new ones and through other measures, Roach said. St. Louis officials in the coming years will apply for grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, the government’s main funding tool for transit projects.

The Federal Transit Administration has a budget of approximately $4.6 billion for such transit projects each year. There are 26 national transit projects ready to apply for funding and 33 others awaiting the government rating needed to apply for the grants.

“So 59 projects, totaling almost $95 billion, are already in the mix,” said Jim Wild, director of the East-West Council of Governments, an association of St. Louis-area leaders that has historically done the planning for Metro Transit. “It is going to be a competitive effort, because they're all competing for about $4.6 billion annually that’s available.”

In 2023, commissioners from Bi-State Development approved paying a consultant more than $7 million to plan the proposed additional route, a 5.6-mile rail corridor that would run along Jefferson Avenue between Natural Bridge Road in the north and Chippewa street in the south.

It will likely be more than three years before the project is funded, WIld said.

“I think it’s going to happen, it’s just they are working through that process,” he said

Once planning of the route is done, Metro or city officials will seek a federal rating from the Federal Transportation Authority, Wild said. The federal government rates projects several times during their development, using ridership numbers, potential ridership and development, costs and other criteria. Only projects with a minimum “medium” rating will be able to secure the grant funding.

Any federal funding for the north-south corridor would be supplemented by money from local governments, Wild said.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page support the project. St. Louis has banked around $90 million to add to the line, Roach said.

The ridership portion of the ranking could cause difficulties, Roach said.

The number of people using public transportation in St. Louis dropped during the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to fully recover, Metro Transit Chief Operating Officer Charles Stewart said.

“Ridership was significantly impacted by the pandemic, there's no doubt about that," he said. “Since then, our lowest year was in fiscal year 2021, ridership was down as much as 40% in the period.”

Since then, ridership has bounced back 6%, he said. The organization has had difficulty hiring operators, which has led to less frequent service, he said, but the system has been able to offer more frequent service this month as they’ve recruited more workers.

“We're anticipating that as we bring the system back, as we're able to be more reliable, more frequent, that we will see ridership continue to improve as we move forward,” he said.

The point that the light rail extension is an investment in north St. Louis and other neglected parts of the city could work in the project’s favor, Roach said. The project will also need a push from state leaders and those in Congress.

“Let’s be honest, we’re talking about rebuilding areas of north city, and it will be tough there,” he said. “But the ground has changed underneath us, and we're looking at things differently associated with travel patterns. So why don't we try something new and different?”

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.