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Carolyn Flowers

Mayor Francis Slay and Federal Transit Authority acting administrator Carolyn Flowers walk along Cherokee Street on Tuesday morning as they tour a proposed Northside-Southside Metrolink route. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger.

Ask Lyda Krewson about expansion of mass transit in St. Louis, and she talks big picture.

“The proposed Northside-Southside route would connect the most people to the most jobs,” says the alderman from the Central West End. Krewson is running for mayor, and on Tuesday morning, she was meeting with young political upstart Bruce Franks Jr. at the Mud House coffee shop on Cherokee Street, on the city’s south side.

Like Krewson, Franks is in favor of transit expansion, but for him, the lens has a tighter focus.

“I want it to go through disenfranchised communities,” says Franks, the Democratic candidate for House District 78, which hugs the eastern edge of St. Louis and contains most of the area where the Northside-Southside route would be built.

“I want people to sit on a train and see what the rest of the city looks like.”

Franks, who forced and won a special election after a judge found irregularities in absentee voting, wants to see city leaders invest in jobs in his district now before talking about a grand project that might take a decade or more to build.

“We get so caught up in the big picture that we forget about small wins,” Franks says.

In the big picture of expanding mass transit in St. Louis, Tuesday was a day about one of those small wins, at least in a political context.

I ran into Franks and Krewson at Mud House awaiting the arrival of Mayor Francis Slay, who was giving the acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, Carolyn Flowers, a tour of the proposed Northside-Southside route. Flowers and the FTA recently awarded a $375,000 grant to the region to update the long-planned route that would travel through the core of the city and connect south St. Louis County to north St. Louis County.

Franks and Krewson weren’t there for the meeting with Slay and Flowers, but the irony is that they might be more important to the future of expansion of transit than the mayor. Come April 2017, Slay will be out of office, and the next mayor and other political leaders will have to figure out how to move the massive project forward in a region that is divided and a state that doesn’t fund transit.

The bottom line for a city that was once a national leader in mass transit and has now seen most other urban areas pass it by is that expansion won’t happen without regional buy-in. The 31-mile Northside-Southside route has about 12 miles in the county, but the application for the grant to move it forward was originally opposed by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. And Flowers didn’t appear to have any plans while in St. Louis to tour any of the routes touted by Stenger, who hasn’t yet endorsed the Northside-Southside route as the regional priority it has long been seen as by transit leaders.

Perhaps it’s telling that a week before Flowers arrived for her first visit to St. Louis, the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis approved for the first time a policy that supports re-entry of the city of St. Louis into St. Louis County, getting rid of the archaic governing structure by which the city is its own county, and thus separates its political interests from those of the rest of the region.

The vote, like Flowers’ visit Tuesday, is largely symbolic, but it highlights the continued momentum in St. Louis to embrace a regional approach to big-picture problems.

Without such an approach, transit expansion just isn’t going to happen, Flowers says.

“Regional cooperation is key,” she says.

So, too, is finding local funds to match the hundreds of millions that will be requested from the federal government to build a project estimated to cost $2 billion. Slay endorses increasing parking fees in the city to come up with local matching funds, which will be a heavy lift if there isn’t also a flow of money from the county, and perhaps some help from the always tightfisted Missouri Legislature.

Flowers looks around Cherokee Street, which is slated to have a transit hub at its intersection with Jefferson Avenue, and sees “an area that probably you’d want to replicate” in other parts of the city along a transit route. It has density and diversity.

Across the street from her visit, a two-story, red-brick structure that was built in 1893 is undergoing renovation — a common sight in this part of the city.

It is the sort of neighborhood that has to succeed if St. Louis has a chance to tap into its potential.

And therein lies the dilemma, says Franks.

Just the night before Flowers arrived, there was a double shooting in his Benton Park West neighborhood that left two women critically injured. While there is business progress in the Cherokee Street corridor, violence in Gravois Park and Dutchtown threatens to stem the tide.

And while the relocation of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the city’s hollowed-out north side brings the promise of thousands of jobs, Franks wonders how many of those will help the local African-American community that calls those neighborhoods home.

“We need to do simple stuff to concentrate resources where they’re most needed,” Franks says.

If mass transit is going to transform St. Louis, the first step is to invest in those communities that need to be replicated, says the political newcomer who has the ear of more than one mayoral candidate.

In that regard, Cherokee Street seems to be a good place to start.

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