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MetroLink at 20: Service is valued; its ability to spur development is being tested

The article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2013: For 15 years, Dorothy Winfrey, 53, has taken the MetroLink, combined with buses and rides from family and friends from her home in south St. Louis to her job as a housekeeper at St. Mary’s Hospital on Clayton Road. She doesn’t have a car, she says, because “I can’t afford it.”

Cheryl Hammond, 67, moved from Maryland Heights to the Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood because of Metro and buses. “I actually moved here because there is access to public transportation,” she said. “I try not to drive because of the effect of car transportation on our urban environment.”

Ryan Tucker, a 30-something pharmacist at Express Scripts, is out on his bike at the Central West End MetroLink station on a Friday morning. He rides his bicycle from his home on the Hill to the station, then takes the train to North Hanley, which, he says is “about a half mile from my building.” His wife drives the one family car.

“It’s all a money issue because we don’t have the money for all the maintenance, the personal property tax and the cost of an extra vehicle,” he said, although he did admit that the exercise was also beneficial.

Operating costs

Those who use MetroLink may need it – or enjoy the option -- but their ridership doesn’t cover expenses. It cost Metro $3.84 for each passenger boarding the train in March 2013, while the average passenger fare was $1.07. The posted price for MetroLink is $2.25 for a one-way ticket, but with fare reductions and monthly passes, most do not pay that rate. This is the nature of the beast, say transportation officials.

“For public transit, nationwide, passenger revenue doesn’t cover cost. What people forget is, highways don’t either,” said Metro’s interim Chief Financial Officer Kathy Klevorn.

“It’s a government-sponsored service,” said Metro CEO and President John Nations.

Funding to build and maintain the system comes from sales taxes, grants and state and federal funding. Federal funding for transportation has declined since 1993, Klevorn said.

“The vast majority of our resources are from local sales taxes,” she said. While fares make up 18.4 percent of the revenue in the 2014 Metro budget, and advertising, concessions and other revenue make up 3.7 percent, 77.9 percent of the budget comes from grants and taxes, according to the Metro budget.

Of the grants and taxes portion of the budget, $116 million, or 68 percent, comes from St. Louis and St. Louis County sales taxes. Illinois’ state subsidies and local taxes contribute $50.4 million, or 23.3 percent, and the federal government chips in $17.7 million, or 8.21 percent. Missouri contributes $196,061 or .091 percent of this portion, a sore point among MetroLink proponents, especially when compared to the more generous funding from Illinois.

The main question after 20 years is: Is the system worth the cost? In a car-centered city, how has MetroLink changed the community?

Revitalizing bus system

Kim Cella, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, a nonprofit organization, says Metro actually saved the bus system.

“Our sole mission when we were formed [in 1985] was to bring light rail to St. Louis. At that time, the bus system was pretty much dying,” she said. “When they got MetroLink, the bus ridership increased at the same time.”

Jerry Blair, director of transportation for East-West Gateway, agrees. “In the mid-1970s, there were 78 million riders on the bus system,” he said. By the 1980s, he said, it had dropped to 38 million. “It really helped to turn around our public transportation system,” he said.

Getting to work

Of the riders interviewed for this story, most cited money as the reason they used public transit. Some, who didn’t own cars, had no other low-cost option.

“Whether you realize it or not, either you’re riding it or you’re depending on someone who does,” said Nations. He became Metro’s leader after, as mayor of Chesterfield, he successfully campaigned for Proposition A, a countywide half-cent sales tax to fund Metro. Because of construction costs of the Cross County Extension, Nations said, Metro was underfunded and had to cut bus routes. Metro had also incurred high legal costs in suits over the extension. Nation said he and others learned to appreciate the value of public transit after Metro cut one-third of bus routes in 2009, affecting workers coming from other places to work in the service sector in Chesterfield, in hospitals, nursing homes and shopping malls.

Attracting riders

Transportation officials say the millennial generation, when polled, values what mass transit helps provide.

“The youth of the future, what they really want is public transportation and greenspace,” said Klevorn.

Similarly, seniors who can no longer drive, and students benefit from public transit.

Todd Littman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia, says that an efficient public transportation system has many intangible benefits. People who live around and use transit stations, he said, get more exercise and are more physically fit than their car-dependent counterparts, as well as being safer from car crashes.

“Once your households own 20-30 percent fewer vehicles and drive 20-30 percent fewer miles, they have 20-30 percent less chance of dying in a car crash,” he said.

In addition, public transit is cheaper and more efficient because it cuts the cost of employers and developers providing one parking space per employee or tenant.

“There’s this whole cascade of costs that are the result of auto dependency,” he said.

So, while the public pays for it, Littman said, light rail transport may be ultimately cheaper than roads in terms of health, wellness and real estate costs.

“The question is, what does it take to convince someone who owns a car to leave that car and walk, bike or take public transit?  Service quality has to be good enough so that people will leave the car at home,” he said. And what is the most efficient, pleasing form of public transit? To Littman, it’s light rail.

Other perspectives

“Our public transportation is not the worst that I’ve seen, but it’s not the best that I’ve seen.  It’s somewhere in the middle,” said Aaron Perlut, the founding force behind Rally St. Louis, a crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding platform to generate ideas that better market St. Louis. Perlut, who lived in Boston and Chicago, remembers not needing a car at all in those places. Although it didn’t change his decision to move to St. Louis, he admits that it’s a factor that people consider when looking at places to live.

Tammy Johnson would agree. The Dellwood resident remembers exclusively using public transit in Boston, but says that access is over a mile from her house, too far for her to forgo using her car.

"It's inconvenient from where I live because the closest access is a mile from my house," she said. She does use light rail for ballgames, however.

“From an economic development standpoint, when people consider taking jobs in new cities, it’s the quality of life around that job. Transit is one of those things that people do consider,” Perlut said. But, he looks forward to its expansion.

“I would love to see it a little more ingrained in our culture and easier access,” he said.

Race and light rail

Perlut believes that racism has hampered efforts to expand light rail in St. Louis. He said he’s been told that whites in Chesterfield didn’t want MetroLink, that race was the reason St. Charles doesn’t have the system and that crime at the Galleria was ascribed to black youth coming there on the light rail. “Perceptions seem to shape the broader perspective of light rail here,” he said.

While Perlut did not live in St. Louis in 1996, Greg Prestemon, director of economic development for St. Charles, remembers when St. Charles residents voted down two half-cent sales tax initiatives. St. Charles had been third on the list of places to build light rail, but after the votes, the Cross County extension to Shrewsbury was built instead.

Prestemon said many factors went into that vote: the large sales tax hike, the silence of city officials who didn’t support the measure, the absence of a planned route and schedule to present to the public and racism.

“The elephant in the room was racism or fear of others, [that was] part of the reason for the opposition to the vote,” he said.

However, attitudes in St. Charles appear to have changed.  “There’s not a quarter that goes by that somebody doesn’t raise the question of when will we be able to have MetroLink here,” he said.

Spurring development

Complaints that MetroLink is not close enough to make it convenient to ride are still heard as light rail supporters say a lack of federal dollars makes it difficult to build new track. But both issues are starting to be addressed.

Instead of building track to reach people, Transit-Oriented Develoment (TOD) maximizes the space around MetroLink stations so people can live, work and play there.

Recent and planned development around MetroLink stations include:

  • The Wellston Developmental Child Care Center, at 1232 Robert L. Powell Place in Wellston
  • The Natural Bridge Great Streets project
  • A new MetroLink stop and development around Cortex Biosciences
  • Retail plans near the Delmar MetroLink station
  • Emerson Park housing development in East St. Louis
  • Developments around the Galleria MetroLink Station 

Slow progress ahead

With the completion of the newest portion of MetroLink in 2006, many may wonder, when will more extensions be built?

Not soon, says Blair. The cost of building new line, combined with the scarcity of federal dollars for transportation projects, means the system will grow very slowly. With the slower pace of development here, it is not feasible to build a really complete system in a short time, Blair said.

“We don’t have a complete system,” he said, “but we have a framework for a very good system. Building a system is a very long-term goal.”

The two projects that Metro is considering next, once it can secure funding, Blair said, are 1) a north side to downtown and south side to south county route and 2) a route from Clayton to Westport, he said. Each project has a projected cost of $800 million, he said.

Blair said that the only block to building either of the above projects is funding.

“The prospects of expanding MetroLink soon are not good, given the current fiscal climate,” he said. The chief element missing, he and Nations said, is federal dollars. “Proposition A requires federal money to build the next project,” said Nations.