In a bid to address concerns over the absence of wide-scale regional mass transit, St. Louis County wants to take a fresh look at expanding MetroLink light rail service.
“We want to keep young people here and we are developing strategies to do that,” County Executive Steve Stenger said in a Wednesday afternoon interview.
Stenger earlier Wednesday informed the East-West Gateway Council of Governments’ board that the county intended to spend $1 million to study MetroLink expansion.
Funding will be drawn from the $80 million the county collects each year from an annual transit sales tax approved by voters in 2010. The referendum designated that money be set aside to analyze nonvehicular transportation alternatives.
“It’s time to keep that promise,” Stenger said.
East-West Gateway will conduct the bulk of the research into the feasibility of building additional MetroLink routes. The analysis will focus on economics, ridership and multiple factors that could influence the route of future light rail lines.
Nearly 15 years has passed since the delivery of the last detailed assessment of the county’s light rail needs.
Earlier proposals identified three possible MetroLink corridors: the “Daniel Boone” running from Clayton to Westport; “MetroNorth” from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to Florissant; and “MetroSouth,” from Shrewsbury to Butler Hill Road.
“The East-West study will determine if there is a viable MetroLink line out there. And by viable, I mean would it qualify for federal funds,” said Jerry Blair, director of transportation for East-West Gateway.
A consortium of the city of St. Louis and seven Missouri and Metro East counties, East-West Gateway representatives meet monthly to discuss matters pertaining to transportation and other regional issues.
Federal transportation dollars would account for at least half of the cost of extending the reach of MetroLink deeper into the county.
The proposed St. Louis County study represents the first phase of a possible billion dollar project that could ultimately take years to complete.
“At best you’re probably talking a decade,” Blair said.
Kimberly Cella, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, called the county initiative a milestone in the campaign to promote accessible public transit.
“This is a big step, not just for St. Louis County but for the region,” Cella said.
Stenger emphasized that the process will rely heavily on public input.
The East-West Gateway board is expected to fold the proposal into its long-term strategic plan, known as Connected2045, at its June meeting.
Stenger said the county was in part inspired to act by surveys showing that graduates of Washington University, St. Louis University and other local colleges gravitate toward cities with established mass transit systems.
Cella noted that an expanded light rail system could also meet the needs of aging baby boomers abandoning automobiles as a primary mode of transportation.
Stenger and Blair said they are well aware that racial overtones have clouded past efforts to spread MetroLink service from urban areas into largely suburban ones.
“There is always an undercurrent. Whether it’s racial or economic it’s about people not like us coming into our community,” Blair said.
Stenger said he is prepared to argue the merits of a MetroLink expansion.
“I think in the environment we find ourselves in following Ferguson that we cannot wait any longer to find ways to get our citizens where they need to go,” the county executive said.
“No matter what issues may arise, we need to move forward and St. Louis County needs to lead the way.”