Events and Experiences with Light Rail Transit
in St. Louis
(compiled by the Editors from information found
on the Internet)
The apparent success of the St. Louis light rail system can be
explained in large measure by the low level of transit usage in
that metro area. When new service is introduced it can attract
more riders from cars compared to areas, like Seattle, which
already have relatively high levels of transit use. Transit
ridership in the St. Louis metropolitan area is approximately
half that of the Puget Sound area. The St. Louis-Bi-State
Development agency which operates the regional bus and light rail
system reported the consumption of 48 million trips in 1994, or
21 trips per capita. In comparison, the four transit agencies
serving the three-county (RTA area of ) central Puget Sound
region reported 103 million trips, or 40 trips per capita. A
similar difference is reflected in the levels of commuters who
travel by transit in the two metro areas as recorded by the 1990
US Census: 2.8% in St. Louis and 6.2% in Seattle.
Light Rail Transit and Downtown Development
Does provision of light rail transit insure the vitality of
downtown? Not in St. Louis as evidenced by a recent announcement
by TWA that it plans to move its corporate headquarters from
downtown St. Louis to a suburban location. The new location will
not be accessible by the area's light rail line (Metrolink).
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the airline's
reservations system will continue to be headquartered downtown,
under an agreement whereby $65 million in tax breaks were granted
to the airline to locate downtown two years ago (at the same time
the headquarters was moved from NY).
TWA indicates that it had outgrown its downtown location. It
is noteworthy, however, that downtown St. Louis has a very large
amount of vacant office space --- probably enough to accommodate
the headquarters facilities of all major airlines.
On the same day, the Union Pacific Railroad announced that
most of the former Southern Pacific headquarters jobs in downtown
Denver, also served by light rail, will be transfered to its
corporate HQ in Omaha, which does not have light rail (some jobs
will move to St. Louis).
Given the light rail development attraction claims of the
professional cheerleaders, one is surprised at these happenings.
There are at least three possible explanations.
1. Light rail repels development.
2. Apparent development attracted by light rail is really
attracted by the expenditures of tax money on new public
infrastructure (such as domed stadia, professional basketball
arenas, and convention centers) and by tax breaks.
3. With respect to market based development, light rail
doesn't make a difference one way or the other.
Of course, items 2 and 3 are not mutually exclusive.
Ongoing Funding Problems and Prospects for Light Rail in St.
In St. Louis, there is a major problem with funding the
ongoing operating costs of Metrolink, the light rail transit
system. There is, at the present time, a very real debate over
how to continue to pay its operating costs. When Metrolink was
first accepted as a success, there developed various interests to
support expanding it so more parts of the metropolitan area could
have a warm civic feeling.
To first sell the congressional delegation on supporting
funding for Metrolink, it was proposed to serve both the Missouri
and Illinois sections of the metropolitan area. The location of
the line now in operation was selected because it could be
developed with no investment of local funds.
An abandoned N&W right-of-way was donated to the City of
St. Louis. The railroad got a tax deduction and St. Louis got to
contribute the land as the 20% local match under FTA rules. The
federal government put up all the money to build the line. That
strategy worked to get 18 miles of service on the Missouri side
but only about one-half mile on the Illinois side. There was no
free right-of-way on the Illinois side. In order to provide the
cash necessary for the extension into Illinois, the citizens of
St. Clair County passed a sales tax. That extension and the
general route it would take has been essentially a given ever
since planning for light rail started 15 years ago.
The citizens of the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County
also passed a sales tax. It was sold on the basis of providing
the local match for expansion of the system in St. Louis County.
The reality of getting the capital funds from Congress to fund
all the extensions everyone wants was essentially ignored. It is
just presumed to be there for the asking.
Everybody is really desperately hoping the Democrats regain
control of the House in November and that Representative Gephardt
becomes Speaker of the House. They envision the federal money
floodgates opening for St. Louis if this event occurs.
At present, the City and the County must annually appropriate
money to Bi-State. Therein lies the problem. The sales tax
authorized by the Missouri legislature and approved by the voters
had a -year sunset. Last year, prorail lobbying quietly got the
sunset removed by the legislature with no vote of the people.
Metrolink runs a deficit, currently about $21 million. Bi-State
has been receiving money from the transportation sales tax to
fund the deficit. Currently 50% of the sales tax goes to the
operating deficit. The East -West Gateway Coordinating Council
(the St. Louis Metropolitan Planning Organization) has projected
that in the future - - even if 90% of the sales tax goes to
operating expenses - - Metrolink's operating expenses will exceed
its fare income and its tax subsidy.
St. Louis County is taking the position that none of the
sales tax should go to operating expenses, so the appropriation
to Bi-State for this year is in trouble with the County Council.
The prorail forces attempted to sell St. Charles County a
transportation sales tax for local match money for light rail
expansion. However, this tax was voted down on August 6th, 1996.
St. Charles County is the focus of sprawl in the St. Louis metro
area and is the fastest growing county in Missouri (and one of
the fastest in the US.) The issues of federal money from Congress
and the Bi-State agency needing lots of money for operations are
still being ignored.
Citizens for Modern Transit in St. Louis
Citizens for Modern Transit is a pro-transit group in St.
Louis. A group with the same name has been formed to help sell
the RTA transit plan to the voters in the Puget Sound region. In
St. Louis, CMT is largely supported by Civic Progress, the St.
Louis power elite. Civic Progress is an informal organization of
the CEO's of the 20 largest private businesses in town. One of
their continuing projects is boosting the city center. CMT also
gets some funding as a transportation management association
focused on downtown. But from a Civic Progress perspective,
Metrolink gives St. Louis a progressive image and does serve
downtown interests. If it didn't really reduce traffic on the
highway it parallels, that's only because more and more people
are moving out to the exurbs. Civic Progress can relate to that.
Last modified: February 07, 2011