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What's at stake in MetroLink expansion

What's at stake in MetroLink expansion

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The four routes regional leaders are mulling for MetroLink expansion snake through wildly different neighborhoods.

Crumbling buildings and weed-choked lots line parts of proposed corridors. Other routes would run near tidy shopping centers and trendy restaurants, reaching deep into the suburbs of St. Louis County.

Experts say younger workers and empty-nest boomers are increasingly looking to live next to light rail stops and the amenities that seem to sprout up around them. Those changing preferences have made the land around light rail stops in other cities valuable real estate, attracting development dollars and residents that will shape neighborhoods for decades.

With a potential development magnet up for grabs, political discord has already surfaced over where the next route should be built. While St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay strongly backs the Northside-Southside line through the heart of the city, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has refused to endorse it, arguing that three other routes that mostly extend into the county also should be studied.

Wherever the next light rail line goes, it will do more than connect people to jobs and entertainment. It could help revitalize a long blighted swath of north St. Louis, or it could help catalyze pockets of dense development near St. Louis County employment hubs.

The debate is not just about transportation. Otherwise, the region could spend a fraction of the cost of light rail and buy more buses.

“Buses do not shape cities, rail does,” said Todd Swanstrom, a professor of public policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Buses accommodate existing patterns of development. Rail can shape patterns of development.”

Choosing a line

A decade has passed since the last MetroLink expansion, when the 8-mile line opened to connect Clayton to Shrewsbury. It was a messy process, going at least $132 million over budget and $276 million more than first estimated, with an additional $27 million in legal fees. And it opened 15 months late.

The first MetroLink line opened in 1993. The initial phase cost $464 million to build, with federal dollars covering about three-fourths of the cost.

Competition these days for federal money is fierce, and the planners must evaluate each of the four proposed MetroLink lines against each other to see which has the best chance of securing that money, said Jerry Blair, director of transportation planning for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. It’s the region’s planning arm, and the decision of where MetroLink expands next will be made by a board of directors who come from both rural and urban areas and hold vastly different priorities.

“Even if we had the money today, we’d be looking at seven to 10 years for it to be complete,” he said.

Blair said leaders hoped the studies on each route could begin this fall. Examining the county routes is expected to take a year, he said, and the north-south study will last 18 months.

The cost of light rail expansion is estimated between $60 million and $80 million a mile, although design plays a big role in that number. Tunneling is expensive, but cars that run in the street — as they would in the plan for the north-south extension — are much cheaper, Blair said.

Regardless, federal money will be essential, and Les Sterman, the former executive director of East-West Gateway, said the three routes that are mostly in the county just won’t have enough ridership to sway the feds. Stenger’s insistence on studying them “seems more like a political gesture than any serious attempt to expand MetroLink.”

He’s not opposed to them in principle, but “it’s a question of the order you take them on.”

“In my view, none of the corridors proposed by the county will come remotely close to qualifying for federal funds, so spending the considerable sums on planning work for these corridors is simply a waste of tax dollars,” said Sterman, a backer of the north-south line.

That was refuted by Tom Curran, Stenger’s senior policy adviser.

“Previous studies have supported the viability of these routes. They are ideal candidates for federal grant dollars,” he said in a statement, which also said the three county routes had been identified as regional priorities during Sterman’s tenure at East-West Gateway.

One of the three routes Stenger supports studying would stretch north along Interstate 170 and include a stop next to the Boeing plant that employs thousands of workers. A Boeing spokesman would not answer questions about MetroLink expansion, including whether the company supports the line and new station near its facility.

Another would pass a planned plant science district near Monsanto’s headquarters, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and tech incubators before reaching Westport, where World Wide Technologies is building a new headquarters that will house hundreds of jobs. Maryland Heights Mayor Michael Moeller said in a statement that the city was encouraged by Stenger’s interest in re-studying the line.

The third would snake through southwestern St. Louis and into south St. Louis County, into an area where it could be heavily used by commuters.

Spurring investment

Planners trying to decide on a line need to look at the current needs of those likely to use public transit and have their eye on where they’d like to see future investment, said John Renne, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University who studies public transit and the development around it.

Extending rail through more stable or affluent neighborhoods can make dense development more difficult because land is more expensive, Renne said. Though it might be a decade or more before development around light rail stations takes off, many cities have successfully attracted development near stations in poorer neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment.

“If you put in rail, you’re going to ultimately get a return through increasing property values and property taxes,” Renne said.

The part of the St. Louis region seemingly most in need of new investment is north St. Louis, which would contain a large share of the north-south line backed by Slay. The new line would run from West Florissant Avenue near Interstate 270 in north St. Louis County, down through the city — including downtown — and along thoroughfares such as Goodfellow Boulevard, Natural Bridge Road and Jefferson Avenue, and ending at Meramec Bottom Road in south St. Louis County.

Slay pointed out in an interview that the new line runs through a federal “Promise Zone,” which moves parts of north city and north St. Louis County up in line for federal dollars that pay for projects such as transit expansion. The new line could also run past the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s planned western headquarters at Jefferson and Cass avenues, which will employ thousands when it opens early next decade.

As the city works to attract housing and other development to the area, the MetroLink line would provide needed transit to a population less likely to have access to a car and send a signal to developers.

“When you build a light rail line, it’s permanent,” Slay said.

While attracting development to the nodes around light rail stations is an important goal, Sterman said providing low-income people with transportation to jobs will also help lift the area. Expanding public transit was one of the signature “calls to action” of the Ferguson Commission report, completed last year, and Sterman argued that a north-south line would connect lower-income people with a higher propensity to use public transit to the central corridor line that connects downtown St. Louis, Clayton and the hospitals and tech companies of the Central West End.

“Increasing incomes and providing jobs for people who need them is a significant form of economic development,” Sterman said.

And, Renne said, it’s a bet that affinity for urban areas and walkable communities will continue to increase.

“When the baby boomers were buying homes and Generation X were buying homes, they were the folks moving out to the suburbs,” he said. “Even the baby boomers now are selling large homes in the suburbs and live in more walkable, transit-oriented communities.”

That was echoed by Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research for American Public Transportation Association, who said demand was high for working and living near transit. “Housing near public transportation is like beachfront property.”

The debate shouldn’t even be about which line to build, said John Hoal, an urban design professor at Washington University whose H3 Studio has done transit-oriented development planning work for Metro.

“So often these transit discussions get posed as one against the other,” Hoal said. “We should design for the long term a great system we know will be viable and say how we will get there, step by step.”

Attracting development

The St. Louis region has a mixed record attracting development to its current MetroLink stops. It’s starting to take off near stable areas in the bustling central corridor, Hoal said. The delay, he thinks, stemmed from the old industrial rail corridor the region chose to build along.

“We’ve had to build our communities back toward the line,” Hoal said. “Clearly that is beginning to happen, and it’s more successful in some places rather than other places.”

Since 2011, roughly $5.7 billion in new projects have been built, are under construction or are in pre-development within half a mile of MetroLink stations, said John Langa, vice president of economic development for Bi-State Development.

One of the goals of such development is to make it as dense as possible, he said, with as many uses including commercial and residential, while making sure it’s accessible not only by train, but by bus, car, bicycle and on foot.

There are examples of where stations have attracted development. A new 14-story apartment building is under construction on Delmar Boulevard near the MetroLink stop. Centene’s campus expansion plans include mixed-use near the Forsyth Metro stop as part of the city’s transit development plan.

Elsewhere, it’s a different story. Vacant lots and boarded-up buildings still surround the Fifth and Missouri station in East St. Louis. Almost 16 acres of vacant land owned by St. Louis County’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority sits next to the Wellston MetroLink station.

Near the Rock Road station down the street from Normandy High School, St. Louis County owns vacant lots, as does the city of Pagedale in the adjacent subdivision.

But efforts are underway to better use the asset. The nonprofit Beyond Housing recently bought six acres and the former flea market building that sits on it next to the station.

Studies envision new mixed-use office and retail and residential and retail buildings near the station, along with multifamily housing. Beyond Housing President and CEO Chris Krehmeyer says his group is interested in using tax increment financing or other incentives to help pay for infrastructure next year and, hopefully, start work on the first building in 2018.

“It’s a terribly underutilized asset in the community,” he said. “Two thousand people roll through there everyday and the extent of economic development is a 7-Up vending machine.”

To the north, the University of Missouri-St. Louis is in discussions with private landowners near the Hanley and UMSL South MetroLink stations to develop additional housing or retail nearby, said Betty Van Uum, an assistant to the chancellor for public affairs and economic development. The university owns land near the stations and is trying to come up with a plan with other landowners to build more densely around them.

Since the university’s community development corporation, University Square, began working to beautify Natural Bridge Road, developer interest has increased near UMSL South, she said. And at Hanley, she estimated the university could be months away from finalizing a plan with other landowners and developers for construction around the station.

“We think there is need for more retail development,” Van Uum said. “Certainly we have strong interest in it.”

In Maplewood, construction began a few months ago near the city’s MetroLink station on a $100 million project on Hanley Road south of Manchester and north of Deer Creek Center. It includes a 174-unit apartment building; a Maserati and Alfa Romeo dealership; and a Porsche dealership.

“I really believe that this will be an ideal for the young professionals and millennials who they say aren’t interested in going out and buying cars,” said Maplewood City Manager Marty Corcoran.

He said the St. Louis area hadn’t grasped the idea of transit-oriented development and was way behind what’s happening in other cities.

“Hopefully we’ll catch up with the rest of the country,” Corcoran said.

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