Metro to Make $400M Debt Payment, Transit Expansion Arguments Set to Begin Again

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2012-03-27_1332859930Metro plans to make a lump sum payment of $400M to pay down its outstanding debt, according to KMOX. The remaining $100M debt will be refinanced. The payment is made possible by the April 2010 passage of Prop A in St. Louis County, which levied a 0.5% sales tax to support Metro. Its passage also meant that a 0.25% sales tax approved by City voters years prior finally went into effect. Prop A passage promised to put Metro on stable financial footing in a state that provides virtually no transit funding.

The agency found itself deep in debt following construction of the $676M Blue Line, which opened in 2006. Overall system service was drastically cut following the failure of St. Louis County voters to pass Prop M, a 0.5% transit sales tax. Prop A restored much of that service and Metro once again looked toward expansion. Then Metro initiated the Moving Transit Forward initiative to gather public feedback regarding future MetroLink and MetroBus service.

After all that, the politics, the proposition votes and public planning, future plans have been relatively quiet. Metro isn’t about to embark on another Blue Line, an 8-mile line completed without Federal matching funds. Considering a modern streetcar network has somehow been wholly absent from any planning or discussion. The Loop and now the Partnership for Downtown have filled that gap. Following the process, what’s coming into focus is an attempt to serve commuters with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the region’s radiating Interstates.

Loop Trolley - St. Louis, MO
{the Loop Trolley, the result of private planning, may start construction this year}

chestnut_Final
{a modern streetcar connecting Downtown to the Central West End is being studied by the private Partnership for Downtown St. Louis}

During a public meeting held more than a year ago, attendees were given the opportunity to plan their own transit system expansion. The rough outline was a budget of $500M over 30 years and options for light rail lines or BRT. The gist of the budgeting exercise was that St. Louis could add one ~8mi light rail line for the same cost as 100 miles or more of BRT, enough for a very robust BRT network on virtually all the region’s major thoroughfares. Given these choices, any reservations about BRT could be put aside in favor of envisioning a true transit network.

And yet, a BRT system isn’t what’s being envisioned at all. The current status of Metro expansion is focused on evaluating four Interstate commuter BRT lines (I-55, I-44, I-64 and I-70). Two of the four will be selected for further evaluation. A full BRT line isn’t planned for Grand Avenue, the system’s busiest line, but longer buses will be put into service to accommodate riders.

Capture1
{BRT Metro map}

Unfortunately, it can be anticipated that St. Louis County will work hard to build more commuter rail and bus lines in lieu of a more dense, functional transit system. It’s another point at which to consider in what way a combined (in whatever sense) City and County might affect transit planning. Would the combined County officials object to a north-south light rail line east of Kingshighway? Does a transit approach reaching to the I-270 outer belt makes sense in a region of disperse residents and employment?

Untitled
{access to shopping from the Brentwood MetroLink station is a planning failure}

Ultimately, does it makes sense to build transit that could help shape a more sustainable future, or build to reach commuters and suburban job centers of today? Besides simply wanting a piece of transit funding, it’s difficult to justify suburban expansion given the response to the Blue Line by county municipalities. Accessibility to shopping centers from transit stations has been ignored, or purposely made unattractive. The largest development project built in the last eight years at a Blue Line station? A Mini car dealership. The Shrewsbury station is largely a park and ride stop and as such is being used as an argument in favor of a $100M grade-separated highway project that (proponents argue) increase park and ride access.

Maplewood Sunnen TOD
{a car dealership represents to most significant investment adjacent to a Blue Line station other than Washington University projects}

Sunnen MetroLink Station demolition
{the Sunnen Station lost a neighborhood and gained a car dealership}

At this point, it’s unlikely Metro would like to entertain a new discussion on just what type of transit expansion is needed. And yet, a 30-year plan should be an ongoing conversation informed by our past experiences. Why not publicly consider Metro support for and operation of a streetcar network? Why not envision a BRT network and not just Interstate lines? None of this mattered before Prop A, when Metro was broke. Public planning sessions only garner so much interest until expansion seems possible. The $400M debt payment is the biggest step forward for Metro in a decade, and more importantly, enables a much bigger step to be taken next.


Saint Louis Rapid Transit Connector Study

Rapid Bus Transit as a Substitute for Light Rail Transit by nextSTL

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  • JP

    Fellow commuters, help me understand why a fixed trolley would be a better substitute for the current bus routes and/or BRT routes.

    • Chris Naffziger

      Easy: a streetcar line has a sense of permanence; there is no chance of it being rerouted around the block or something without the riders knowing (happened to me in DC all the time). Also, MANY people have a bias towards riding the bus, but will ride more “upscale” mass transit like Metro or streetcars.

      • dempster holland

        The sense of permance may be a factor, but it didn’t save
        the wholesale elimination of streetcar routes from 1947 to
        1966. The problem is that as conditions change, some
        times transit routes must change. Having said that, a number
        of very good streetcar routes were eliminated because highway changes and street widening required streetcar
        rerouting which the private public service company thought
        was more expensive than changing to buses Now that most
        of these type changes are complete, streetcars could still
        be constructed along major streets if desired, eg, Grand.
        Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Gravois, Lindell etc.
        But we should remember that the main reason streetcars pre-
        dominated in the first half of the 20th centruy was that
        electric traction was perfected several decades before the
        internal combustion engine

        • Alex Ihnen

          ^ Not sure that’s the “main reason”. There were many factors. The built environment of the city, including the location of jobs made mass transit the only practical solution for moving people. Cars, and those who could afford them disrupted this arrangement that lasted for decades. Still, streetcars were everywhere. Then came billions of dollars in federal highway projects, allowing people to live further from work, mortgage subsidies (and red lining) that pulled and pushed people to new suburban development, then the vast expansion of the middle class and with it, car ownership. It’s a long story, but the streetcar’s demise wasn’t fate dictated by the internal combustion engine.

          • dempster holland

            I was referring to streetcasrs over buses. Hasd the
            internal combustion engine bbenn [erfected by 1870,
            for example, streetcars may never have been used and
            buses would have predominated from the outset. For
            the effect of highway construction requiring expensive
            streetcar relocation and the consequent shift to buses,
            see the books by Andrew Young on the history of
            streetcars

  • Eric

    The largest development project near a Blue Line station? A Mini car dealership.

    Um… what do you call these?

    http://goo.gl/maps/AZsnn
    http://goo.gl/maps/rxZN1
    http://goo.gl/maps/50Xxd

    • Alex Ihnen

      Homewood Suites is probably fair. The Boulevard was built around the same time the Blue Line opened in 2006, nearly nine years ago. The condos on Forsyth were built in 2003. The next transit-adjacent development on the Blue Line is going to be a Menards that replaces a residential neighborhood.

  • Hasan

    Why not allocate 50% to paying down the debt, then refinance the remainder. Then allocate the other 50% to expansion. $200M towards expansion is a great starting point.

  • Dani Pizzella

    I completely agree with all the other comments that the north/south line and/or a grand streetcar line need to be next. The southside is very underserved.

    I also understand that metro believes it must lure new riders to the system in order for any expansion to be successful. this is why they focus on trying to lure in suburban riders. from what I understand, since people already use the grand 70 bus so much, it is believed that adding a grand streetcar line would only shift riders from the bus to the streetcar. this is not true. I have been a southside resident for a long time and live right off tower grove park. I hate the grand bus. its to crowded, stops too often, and has almost gotten in an accident every time ive been on it. so instead of taking the bus to the metrolink, I ride my bike or drive to the grand station or skip metro all together. many other people do this as well. slu even runs shuttles from farther north on grand to the metrolink station because of the inconvenience for students trying to walk there. These would all be new riders added to the system.

    also, with all of the festivals and events that occur in midtown, tower grove park, and the botanical gardens, currently suburbanites must drive to these festivals and parking is a nightmare. (I have to park at least four blocks from my house each time I get off work on a food truck friday night.) if grand were to get a streetcar, these visitors to the city could park and ride at their nearest metrolink and use the grand line to attend events, just as they currently do for sporting events and festivals downtown. this would not only increase accessibility to these events and neighborhoods, but would increase the overall number of metro riders.

    • Eric

      . I hate the grand bus. its to crowded, stops too often, and has almost gotten in an accident every time ive been on it.

      The Grand bus runs at best once every 10 minutes. Increasing the frequency to once every 5 minutes would be much cheaper, and more effective, than building a streetcar.

      While make stops further apart is a good idea (see http://www.humantransit.org/2011/04/comments-of-the-week-ideal-stop-spacing-is-400m.html), typical streetcars have very frequent stops too, so installing a streetcar wouldn’t help things.

  • Scott Jones

    Metro should build a street car line on Grand Ave. It’s the main North/South transit corridor for the city. The #70 is the busiest Metro bus route from what I understand and you could replace the whole thing with a new street car line:

    http://www.metrostlouis.org/PlanYourTrip/MapsSchedules/MetroBusRoute.aspx?Name=Grand&SignID=176&LineID=10930

    You’d hit:
    * SLU
    * Midtown (Symphony Hall, the Fox, etc)
    * Cardinal Glennon and other healthcare facilities
    * Tower Grove park
    * S Grand (restaurants, stores)
    * Two classic water towers!
    * A connection with MetroLink at the Grand Station
    * Connections with numerous East-West bus lines
    * Connections to potential future street car lines on Lindell and Cherokee(?)

    You’d have a huge built-in ridership basically guaranteeing the line is a
    success (thus ensuring that street cars don’t get a bad name in STL in
    the future).

    You also have tons of undeveloped/underdeveloped real estate north of Midtown and south of the S. Grand strip–so you could use this as a development tool.

    • kuan

      Except that a north-south connector would straddle the race line in the city, which might be an issue it still is not yet ready to address.

      • jhoff1257

        The “race line” is Delmar, not Grand.

        • Scott Jones

          I think he meant “cross”, not “straddle” since Grand crosses Delmar.

          • jhoff1257

            Good point Scott, though I hope his comment isn’t advocating cutting the North off from rail transit just because the demographic is different from other parts of the City.

          • kuan

            Scott’s right, I was just saying that Grand is north-south, thus it runs into the same problem that any north-south connector in the city would encounter; the race issue.

        • samizdat

          True, that is so. But, when my wife and I were buying a house (we eventually bought in the northern part of Dutchtown, north of Meramec), I noticed on the MERS (read up on that system; talk about corrupt), listings that “East of Grand” was often used for many of the houses, even some of those which were west of Grand. I’m wondering if it’s a coded dog-whistle Realtors use to steer potential buyers away from certain neighborhoods and properties. Just a thought.

          • jhoff1257

            You make a good point. But when you consider some of the neighborhoods East of Grand (Tower Grove East, Benton Park, Cherokee Street area, Marine Villa, Downtown, Downtown West, Midtown, Old North, and my personal favorite Lafayette Square plus many more) it doesn’t make much sense as far as a racial component. Some majority white, majority black and very integrated neighborhoods in the area East of Grand.

  • John

    The state spends millions of dollars every year on the highways. Why not team up with some folks from K.C. to try and pass a bill that will divert some of that money to light-rail?

  • Goat314

    Metro is a jo

    • Scott Jones

      ke?

  • Andy

    The inconvenience of public routes to the Shrewsbury Metro stop from Saint Louis Hills always bugs me on airport trips. I was able to use ONLY public transportation from Laguardia to Manhatan to DC to Reagan for a week of travel, but the one logistical issue was Shrewsbury to Saint Louis Hills…had to walk it.

    If I want to take a bus from Shrewsbury Metro to Merimac CC there are, like 3 options though, haha. One positive step would be to see this part of South City add more public transportation routes. It’s so close and could be so convenient ! And would help change attitudes I think.

  • JPCosgrove

    I wouldn’t support any BRT on the interstates unless a Grand line gets built first. Metro needs to be investing in the more densely populated City where public transit is more useful rather than trying to lure suburbanites onto it. I can’t bear the thought of another Brentwood/Sunnen disaster.

    • Don

      You are absolutely right. More buses to suburbia is an incredible waist of resources. We really need to get this right.

    • Scott Jones

      I think they’re trying to show to the county that they get something for their tax dollars too–that Metro is not just welfare transportation for inner-city blacks and urban hipsters.

    • dempster holland

      It is absolutely necessary to provide service to st louis county, since
      that is where much of the sales tax money comes from. In that vein.
      the north south light rail should be built, extending at least two to three
      miles in to north county and south county, and the westport line should be built, providing more service to central west county as well
      as reverse commuting for city residents. This total system would put
      a subsstantial number of residents somewhat close to a rapid light
      rail line/

  • Don

    For the City of Saint Louis to grow and prosper it must become a desirable place for young people to live and ultimately raise families. For 30 years, urban pioneers have left the city to raise their children. The renaissance that is starting to take hold in the City will wither and die if we fail to make the city a place to raise families.

    Two of the biggest issues: more and better charter schools, and more and better mass transit.

    Critics of Saint Louis often point out how poorly our mass transit compares to the train systems in US and European mega cities. But those train systems were built out over 100 to 150 years — they just didn’t appear after a 10 to 15 year build out. The importance of a meaningful transit plan for the City of Saint Louis can’t be overstated. Our survival depends on a meaningful transit plan to move people around economically and conveniently without cars. Bus routes in the City have always seemed needlessly complicated and counter-productive to me. A streetcar line out of downtown on Olive/Lindell to at least the park would be ideal as would lines that run N and S on Broadway, Grand and Kingshighway connecting all parts of the city. But maybe revamping bus routes with the new larger busses and simplified routes (the “Grand Line” “Broadway Line” “Kingshighway Line”) would be more realistic and economical.

    The Metro Web page is awful (just go there and see how easy it is to figure out what passes are available and how much they cost) and the need for exact change on buses and transfers, etc. to use the bus and connect with Metro is beyond outdated.

    We have to get mass transit right. Our survival depends on it.

    • Matt

      Agreed. It seems to me that connecting the near North and South side communities would be a priority. The communities like Shaw, McKinley Heights, Benton Park and the proposed Northside Regeneration could benefit from greater connectivity with downtown. The south side is particularly cut off thanks to two interstates and a huge rail corridor. Moving people around quickly and efficiently is a major aspect of what makes a city, and therefore a region, prosper.

      • Scott Jones

        I suspect the placement of the interstates was no accident. The city leaders were trying to create barriers to prevent blacks from moving into South STL. Do we really need two parallel interstates running in the city just a mile apart? I think that the urbanists of STL should be pushing for removing one of these highways (my vote would be for 44).

        Also, as STL is no longer an industrial powerhouse, do we really need all those damn rail lines anymore?

        • jhoff1257

          We may not be an industrial powerhouse but we are one of the nations largest inland ports and the third largest rail hub. We may not manufacture anymore but we move obscene amounts of freight through this region, much of it by rail.

    • Scott Jones

      Those people who complain about St. Louis’s Public transit system vs. a European city’s system need to keep in mind just how spread out most of STL is–the STL metro area is about the same size as Paris’s but Paris packs in more than 12 million people while STL only has fewer than 3 million. Most of suburban STL will NEVER be effectively served by public transit unless density is increased. I’m not talking about Manhattan density, just medium density like you see in most of the pre-war STL neighborhoods is all it will take.