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. Louis

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.

Official Metrolink Light Rail Web Site

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Last modified: February 07, 2011