St. Louis Metro Promotes Transit Investment Plan, But Will Need Sales Tax Support to See it Through

» Referendum on April 6 could determine feasibility of the project.

Planners at Metro Transit call Moving Transit Forward St. Louis’ first serious long-range plan for public transportation. For the city’s voters, who will vote in April on a sales tax referendum called Proposition A, its release is better late than never; it is essential that the electorate have a clear understanding of the projects for which their money would be used.

For 2010, that’s what St. Louis will get, but in the process, citizens are being given the suggestion of a promise too big for their region to fulfill.

The last time around, in November 2008, voters in the transit area — including St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Clair County (in Illinois) — struck down a proposal that would have increased the tax rate to pay for transit investments and potentially a new light rail line. There had been no elucidation of spending priorities before the vote, other than a claim that service would be downgraded without the new tax; this missing information diminished support significantly.

That lack of voter action has deprived the transit system of adequate funding, and it has had to cut services repeatedly in recent months. A new infusion of tax money must be put in place if the agency is ensure adequate long-term funding. That’s one of the primary reasons why Metro has made such a big deal of Moving Transit Forward, why it has held dozens of meetings to discuss it, and why it has modified the report’s suggestions as a result of public involvement.

Approved unanimously by the Metro governing board last week and likely be approved by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the regional MPO) later this month, the Moving Transit Forward plan promotes an enormous number of potential projects: eight light rail extensions, five bus rapid transit corridors, and two commuter rail lines.

It’s the complete antithesis of the set of minor proposals for Indianapolis unveiled last week by a local business group.

If Indiana’s capital city suffers from a deficit of ambition, Missouri’s largest metropolis may be afflicted by a glut of the stuff, at least relative to the city’s limits on funding capacity. If passed, Proposition A would generate an estimated $75 million a year from its 1/2¢ sales tax — a lot of money, to be sure, but certainly not enough to stimulate the kind of massive new capital investments promoted by the plan. This is especially true because Metro has committed to spending first on a restoration of bus and rail operations to service levels that were in place two years ago. Existing funds don’t provide adequate resources to cover those expenses.

Though Moving Transit Forward lacks a definite price tag (fault of a lack of in-depth research on each potential line), it does provide a general layout for how limited funds could be used over a thirty-year period, though it doesn’t prioritze any specific project. Within five years, two bus rapid transit routes could be built; within ten, additional BRT routes and one light rail extension could be implemented; within thirty, a second light rail alignment could be constructed. There is no clear plan for how spending for commuter rail would be undertaken.

Metro wouldn’t move forward on any of the projects without a commitment from the federal government and additional financial support at the local and state levels.

In other words, the huge network of lines suggested in the map above and in the Moving Transit Forward plan itself is more a chimera than fact — perhaps even an attempt to distract the voter with a sense of the possible, rather than bog him or her down with the reality of a lack of adequate finances. St. Louis will not be getting this system in the next thirty years, even if Proposition A is approved in April.

This isn’t to suggest that this plan has no merits. The NorthSide and SouthSide light rail lines, which would coalesce downtown, would serve the densest and most transit-friendly areas of St. Louis City; the same is true of the Grand BRT, which would operate as a sort of inner-city circumferential route and allow people to avoid downtown transfers.

I’m less enamored of the miles and miles of suburban light rail extensions also being promoted by the plan; these projects would likely attract fewer riders per mile and reinforce the job growth and residential sprawl that already plagues the St. Louis region. The highway-running bus rapid transit lines suggested for each of the Interstates radiating from downtown would be cheap to implement — they could run in converted automobile lanes — but they wouldn’t attract many users unless they could ensure quicker commute times than can cars. The commuter rail corridors, which would use existing freight track, are not transit as much as inter-city rail lines; they should be pursued by the Missouri Department of Transportation, not Metro. Spending on public transportation capital programs should be focused on St. Louis City, which has lost considerable population since mid-century.

For the region, Moving Transit Forward is a step forward, but it isn’t an exact list of projects to be funded over the next thirty years, and it makes no effort to prioritize investments. For the savvy voter, then, its suggestions may appear as just another example of Metro Transit skirting the question of how it would take advantage of its new funding capacity.

On the other hand, at least it’s a list of proposals at all: if St. Louis does move forward with the sales tax increase, it will have a refined ability to discuss and then choose from a defined universe of light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail options. That’s more than it could say last time around.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Matt Fisher

    BRT is not a true fixed guideway, even with a busway. It’s just a dumbing down. And Grand should have LRT.

  • DBX

    There’s a good baseline of support for transit in general in St. Louis-area politics, but bear in mind the circumstances under which the 2008 referendum failed; not only was the plan vague, but Metrolink had just filed a weak lawsuit against the contractor on the West County light rail line, which Metrolink of course lost, and immediately drew a countersuit that the contractor won. At issue was the great many change orders in that project, how long the contractor had taken, and how much Metro should pay. There was a strong perception at the time that the referendum was covering for the unfortunate result of the lawsuits. And even so, the referendum failed by the narrowest of margins.

    The plan tells me that Metrolink is not only much more focused than it was, it is also much more politically realistic. The geography of the new plan pays more attention to areas that leaned more than expected toward voting no in the 2008 referendum, namely heavily-African-American north county and the white working and middle class South County (south and southwest suburbs. And I think the result is a better plan. City neighborhoods are better covered, and suburb-to-suburb commuting is much better covered.

    A note on planning as well. St. Louis is very low density on residential and could stand some DC-style rezoning and high-rise development around metro stations. But the other half of the battle is commercial and St. Louis commercial development is concentrated in corridors, hence the enormous range of jobs, business, educational and retail nodes already served by the relatively small light rail network in place. As long as people can get from their homes to the bus or train stop, the other end is taken care of.

  • One reason Metro doesn’t include priorities in the plan is because Metro isn’t the body charged with making those decisions. That’s a political/planning function that the East-West Gateway will serve. Metro is including strengths and weaknesses of each route, though, and you can easily see via the data which corridors look like good bets and which don’t, from a purely transit point of view.

    Each presentation that Metro has given regarding the plan has emphasized, over and over, the funding challenges to expanding transit in St. Louis, or even restoring much of the service that was lost last year. The plan makes clear that any expansion requires additional local, state, and federal resources. But you have to start somewhere, and sharing a vision is a good place to start figuring out how to make it happen.

  • Xerxesjc28

    “If passed, Proposition A would generate an estimated $75 million a year from its 1/2¢ sales tax”

    Is that correct, that 1/2 Cents sales tax = only 75 million? I would have thought it would be tons more since here in Miami our 1/2 cents sales tax increase gave us like hundreds of millions (like billions over a decade or 2 iirc).

  • In St. Louis, there is a big misconception that Metro gets to decide where and when to expand light rail or how to move into other large transit planning projects like BRT. We do not have that authority. The East-West Gateway Council of Governments, made up of our elected officials, have the power of planning and approval over future design projects. They provide the initial design estimate and plan.

    The plan is what Metro’s research and planning department has identified as potential transit corridors and modes for the future, how long it could take, etc, based on our own planning data and public input. But the prioritization, as well as initial cost estimates, is left to our region’s transportation planning organization, East-West Gateway.

    Also, the plan highlights that the first priorities that Metro does decide if funding is secured, is the restoration of service (bus, rail and paratransit) lost in March 2009, as well as technological and safety amenities for passengers. These priorities were based on public input.

    Without additional funding, by July 2010 Metro will reduce its service to 50% of what was available in St. Louis March 2009. The last generative funding mechanism in St. Louis for public transit was elected in 1994; previously, 1974.

  • The problem with this plan isn’t money; it’s that it replicates the tried and failed monocentric model of rail development. Would it kill Metrolink to merge the North Side and South Side light rail lines into one line without too much detouring?

  • Alon, the detour is required to reach the downtown core which lies east of Tucker (12th) whereas the proposed MetroLink line approaches downtown in both directions via 14th. Metro maintains a transit hub at 14th & Spruce adjacent to the Civic Center station. Nitpicky, but Yonah’s map shows each downtown detour segment of the proposed line 1-2 blocks off of where it should actually be (see EWGateway).

    In the end, the problem really is money. EWGateway studied the MetroSouth corridor in 2004 but indefinitely deferred selection of a locally preferred alternative due to unclear funding sources. They studied Northside-Southside in 2008, but have not acted, again, due to unclear funding sources as well as obscene cost for paltry urban ridership estimates. Madison County has yet to vote for a transit tax since a failure in 1997. I’m sure the Daniel Boone line will get studied shortly; attractiveness of the Westport employment center at the end of line, St. Charles County commuters, and wealth politics will all but certainly sway EWGateway to build this line first over all other LRT alignments, or so says my own crystal ball. None of which matters if the April vote fails.

  • If the city is sending light rail to other counties at this stage, it’s doing it wrong. First build up the urban core, then send light rail to the boonies.

    The detour doesn’t need to be there to serve downtown. The line can detour eastward slightly to serve Union Station; there’s no need to go almost all the way to the river.

    Ultimately, this map shows all that is wrong with MetroLink.

  • Has anyone thought to provide all the riders of the Metro with a door to door cab service instead of this money pit. There are so few riders on the busses where I live I think you would save money if the few riders were moved around in limos. Or give all the prospective riders vouchers again you would save money, be more flexible, and wouldn’t be saddled with all the underutilized inferstructure costs.

  • metro;s bureaucratic response that East West gateway
    chooses priorities ignore the obvious rejoinder–why
    not have east-west choose the priorities before the re-
    ferendum. Much of St Louis transit planning has always
    been pass the buck. As to concentrating on the city and
    not the county, that ignores the fact that the county money
    is essential to have any transit system at all

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