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St. Louis eyes MetroLink expansion even as bus service contracts

A MetroLink vehicle speeds along the system’s red line, which runs from St. Louis Lambert International Airport all the way to Scott Air Force Base.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
A MetroLink vehicle speeds along the system’s red line, which runs from St. Louis Lambert International Airport all the way to Scott Air Force Base.

In his more than two decades in St. Louis, Richard Bose has observed several MetroLink studies — and expansions. After the light-rail line first opened in 1993, stretching from North Hanley to downtown and just across the Mississippi River, the network slowly crept farther east, west and southwest in the 13 years that followed.

But since 2006, light rail hasn’t expanded its footprint. The long-discussed perpendicular line running through the heart of the city, all the way from north St. Louis County southward, has remained a dream.

Now the passage of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill has prompted renewed dialogue about the possibility, with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones eager to move forward — and a growing pot of $41 million in voter-approved sales tax already earmarked for the project. Yet even some devoted public transit lovers and urban enthusiasts have reservations.

“What’s been a little disconcerting — I mean, sure, there’s all this excitement, [but] at the same time this is happening, our bus system is disintegrating,” Bose, the editor of NextSTL, told St. Louis on the Air. “It’s in crisis.”

Earlier this week, Metro Transit suspended service on six existing bus routes and reduced service on many others as the agency reckons with a worker shortage. For local transit riders, that crisis looms large in any discussion about light rail today. That’s especially true, Bose noted, since any MetroLink expansion could be as much as eight to 10 years away.

A MetroLink train crosses the Mississippi River on the lower decks of the Eads Bridge.
Evie Hemphill
A MetroLink train crosses the Mississippi River on the lower decks of the Eads Bridge.

Even so, light rail remains popular with both politicians and residents who use it as an occasional alternative to their cars. Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, notes that public transit developments happen within the context of the “political economy of transit.”

For elected officials, the professor explained, “opportunities to cut ribbons in front of things is much better than making broad improvements.”

“A new airport terminal, new sports stadium, a new light-rail line? Those are dramatic, concrete — if you’ll pardon the pun — improvements that people can see and say, ‘OK, these people are in office; they cut a ribbon in front of that. NPR and the local paper all covered it, and so that’s a thing,’” Taylor said. “And so in general there is a capital bias in public works broadly and in public transit in particular. We have a tendency to kind of think about steel and concrete when a variety of operations will do.”

Frequent, reliable bus service can be essential for local workers. But, he said, it doesn’t help elected leaders like a major capital project would.

“What does a public official point to? ‘Well, we’ve got better on-time service. The buses ran more frequently.’ That’s harder to see,” Taylor said. “And the issue with a light-rail line is that most people don’t ride transit, but almost everyone can see the light-rail line. Only the transit users notice that service has gotten more reliable. And since you’re elected not just by transit users — you’re elected by all voters — something that has that kind of visualization of being a manifestation of an improvement of transit, that’s going to get more political support.”

Nick Dunne, a spokesman for Jones, said Monday that the city is working with St. Louis County on “an alternatives analysis.” The city has plans for a “public education and community visioning process” about the potential north-south project, he said.

“We’re hoping to do engagement around this — what that looks like is yet to be determined,” Dunne said. “We really want to do an analysis of ridership, both current and anticipated from this, as well as just kind of seeing what’s going to work best for the community.”

Kate Lowe is an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago.
University of Illinois Chicago
Kate Lowe is an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago.

When voters approved a sales tax increase in 2017, the ballot language designated 60% for MetroLink, with language specifically citing the north-south rail line expansion.

Dunne said the city’s understanding of the $41 million generated to date is that “it does have to go toward MetroLink.” He added, “Now, what we define as MetroLink, some might think of it narrowly [as a train system].” Dunne said the city is exploring options and eager to figure out a transit plan that is “most feasible for our community.”

On Wednesday’s show, host Sarah Fenske went into more depth on this topic with the University of Illinois Chicago’s Kate Lowe.

Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and policy, said she tends to be hesitant about rail expansions.

“Many rail expansions have tended to benefit white, affluent commuters and come with opportunity costs for investing in bus networks,” Lowe explained. “This proposal that’s happening in St. Louis may be a little different — as I understand, there would be several majority-Black communities that would benefit. But we’ve seen many times rail pursued at the expense of frequent, speedy bus service that brings tangible benefits to riders.”

One reason capital projects tend to take priority, she said, is that federal rules “actually make it really hard to use federal dollars for operations.”

“So it’s not easy for Metro to repurpose certain pots of money to increase operator salaries, for example, that would help with bus operator retention,” Lowe said. “That said, some places have invested creatively in bus service to make it speedy and equivalent to light rail using federal dollars.”

St. Louis-area census data shows that the majority of bus commuters are people of color, whereas 61% of light-rail commuters are white, Lowe said. She added that in her view, that’s not necessarily a reason to turn away from expanding MetroLink.

Transit experts and St. Louisans mull a maze of considerations amid hopes for MetroLink expansion
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with Kate Lowe and hears other perspectives as well.

“Even though light-rail is not always the most cost-effective option, I see cost-effectiveness arguments used more often when a project would benefit Black communities, so I don’t think that the transit agency should suddenly turn from light rail when it’s been serving white commuters,” Lowe said. “A lot will depend on what happens in those served communities. It’s an exciting opportunity for investment but also risks gentrification.”

Community members also offered their perspectives, joining the on-air discussion by phone and social media. Several listeners offered thoughts on potential alternatives to light rail, such as bus rapid transit, which gives buses a dedicated right-of-way.

For all its promise, Lowe said bus rapid transit requires good execution.

“One tricky thing that’s happened in the U.S. context is that we haven’t seen a lot of bus rapid transit done well,” Lowe noted. “In the implementation process, for example in Boston, there was a bus rapid transit project that was gonna have its own lane, and then that lane became also a turn lane, and a parking lane. So it lost a lot of the advantage.”

She added that she hopes St. Louis continues to grapple with the potential for MetroLink expansion and many different factors to consider — and suggested that a new light-rail line “can’t come at the expense of quality bus operation.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.