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St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has made clear his support for a north-south MetroLink expansion, saying it’s a top priority in his final year in office. But a recent push for money to plan such a route has met with strong resistance from St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

Stenger, in a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, said he will not endorse the north-south route until other proposed routes are studied.

The surprise move puts the county’s top elected official in direct conflict with Slay and other city officials, who see the north-south route as key to redeveloping north St. Louis and other distressed urban areas.

Stenger’s letter, dated June 15 but widely circulated Monday, came in response to a $530,000 grant application submitted by Bi-State Development, which oversees Metro Transit. It seeks $375,000 in federal funds, $30,000 in cash from the St. Louis Development Corp. and the remainder in work from Bi-State and city staff.

Signatures on a letter in support of the grant include Slay’s, as well as those of John Nations, president and chief executive of Bi-State, and Joe Reagan, president and chief executive of the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

“We understand that North-South MetroLink will be expensive — it may take a decade to plan, fund and construct. But, we are convinced that its benefits are directly proportional to its challenges and that we have a moral and economic imperative to make it a reality,” their letter says.

Stenger’s letter was in sharp contrast. He said the county has not endorsed the north-south route as the region’s next light-rail project, nor has the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which is the region’s planning arm and distributes federal dollars for such transportation projects.

Stenger didn’t mince words Monday when asked whether he believed the county had been kept in the dark about the grant application and the efforts afoot to pursue such a route.

“It was worse than that,” Stenger told the Post-Dispatch. “Frankly, it was surreptitious.”

He objected to the project being labeled as a regional priority without the endorsement of St. Louis County, whose taxpayers provided about $137 million to Bi-State last year when the city chipped in $32 million, and that the county deserves to be consulted “for longer than 10 minutes on a decision as important as this.”

Stenger’s letter says the north-south route is the most expensive of four being considered, with a $2.2 billion price tag. The line would be 17 miles, stretching from north St. Louis County near the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College, into downtown St. Louis and down Interstate 55 to Bayless Avenue.

The other three routes on the table, all of which Stenger said would be half or less the cost of the north-south route, are the “Daniel Boone” from Clayton to Westport; “MetroNorth” from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to Florissant; and “MetroSouth,” from Shrewsbury to Butler Hill Road.

But none of those three would go through north St. Louis, where a new $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters is set to be built just northwest of downtown. At the moment, the current route outlined for the north-south route goes just east and north of the NGA site, although plans are being made to alter that.

Stenger and Slay supported the NGA locating there, a consensus that Stenger said was preceded by detailed discussions.

“This was done much differently,” Stenger said of the push for a north-south MetroLink route. “It was done, frankly, behind the county’s back.”

The transit disagreement marks the most public tension between Slay and Stenger about a major project.

“Expanding access to transit is not a zero-sum game,” Slay said in a statement Monday. “Investing in North-South MetroLink, which would serve both the city and county, does not rule out investing in other transit lines. I welcome a conversation about how we can best serve our regional needs.”

Mary Ellen Ponder, his chief of staff, had stronger words.

“There is a huge difference between not signing on to a letter of support and writing a letter of opposition. It is unfortunate Mr. Stenger chose to communicate with the city in this fashion. It is embarrassing,” she said in a separate statement.

Stenger’s letter is dated Wednesday. It came two days after Bi-State submitted its grant application to the FTA, a move that followed the city’s decision to study transit-oriented development potential for the north-south expansion option, Bi-State said.

“We’re sorry to see there is disagreement among them at this moment as to what the priority will be,” said Nations, the head of Bi-State, on Monday. He said the decision of what corridor will be studied and pursued rests with St. Louis County and St. Louis — not with his agency.

East-West Gateway will do the corridor studies. Stenger said he expects to announce in the coming days which route or routes that will be examined further in a county-funded study.

“It’s really interesting that at a moment when we need regionalism the most, we seem to be getting cityism,” he said of the push for the north-south option. “This is a route, by its nature, that fragments us.”

He elaborated on that in his letter, in which he wrote the route cannot be directly integrated into the existing MetroLink system because it would run in the street, not as a separate right-of-way. It also would use different, lower cars than those currently used that would not be compatible with the current system.

Jim Wild, executive director of East-West Gateway, said an initial study years ago did show that street-running cars might work best for the route.

But he made it clear that no route has been chosen over any other, and nothing has been set in stone.

“In theory, we could be doing two or more studies at the same time and looking at the options that are there for MetroLink,” Wild said. “We’ve got a long time to go before any decisions are made on corridors and what we can afford to do as a region.”

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