CLAYTON — Bi-State Development is making slow progress toward a safer MetroLink, a consultant running the transit system’s security overhaul told a wary St. Louis County Council on Tuesday.
Restoring public confidence in the light-rail system is possible, but will take at least a couple of years, Lurae Stuart, a rail transit security expert for the firm WSP USA Inc., told the county’s legislators, who hold the purse strings for half of the regional transit system’s funding.
The council invited the consultant for an update while it mulls Bi-State’s request for county taxpayers to kick in $164.3 million this year for Metro Transit, which includes MetroLink. Council members and County Executive Sam Page have balked at investing more money in Metro, which unveiled a “reimagined” system this summer that county officials said disproportionately reduced service in St. Louis County.
Page has pushed back at the county’s relative loss of clout over the system’s governance, after a change to Illinois law that gave St. Clair County one more seat on Bi-State’s board of trustees than St. Louis County has now, even though it contributes far less money to the system.
Under contract by East-West Gateway Council of Governments, WSP has called for better coordination with police in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Clair County and criticized Metro’s public safety department for competing with, instead of complementing, the police.
Two Republican council members, Ernie Trakas and Mark Harder, reacted with exasperation at the update, saying they’ve been hearing about progress for several years without seeing evidence of it. Democrat Lisa Clancy said she couldn’t see how the consultant was using data to measure success, or how council members could track progress.
Stuart told the council on Tuesday that things were getting better. She said she had been “appalled” at the lack of communication between Metro and the police agencies at the time her team came in after being hired by East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
But she said the police agencies today are close to signing contracts to patrol the system, and that Bi-State’s job descriptions for security officers have been rewritten to distinguish their roles from that of police. She said Bi-State had started deploying its officers under contract from the Securitas security firm in different ways to make them effective, and that Bi-State was preparing to seek bids for a new security contract.
She said officers from different agencies are now able to talk over radios — correcting one of the system’s most glaring failures. Police and security officers are working together jointly to check riders’ fares and doing so with more fairness. Other changes are underway, too, including physical changes at several stations to control access and improve lighting.
Bi-State this week hired three new department heads to oversee its security operation, a critical step, Stuart said.
But she acknowledged that Bi-State has pushed back one change suggested by her firm — ending the carrying of guns by its public safety officers and contracted guards. A recent video shared on social media captured a security officer pulling a weapon on a platform; she said that officer had been fired and that security officers should be focused more on de-escalating problems.
Some council members pointed to the apparent unfairness that the county police supply 50 officers for MetroLink, while St. Louis police contribute just eight. Harder asked whether the county should streamline command by simply taking over the entire Missouri side.
Stuart said it shouldn’t matter so much where the officers come from: they should work together as a single policing unit. She said security on MetroLink depended on police officers responding to incidents even if they are on patrol elsewhere. Because the light rail line crosses the city, St. Louis police need a seat at the table, she cautioned.
“Take the dog out of that fight and maybe they’re not showing up as quickly as they can,” she said.