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Rain dampens morning commute

A Metro commuter makes her way to the Brentwood Station platform under a steady drizzle on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • Picture light-rail trains running on streets between the campus of St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley in Ferguson and Bayless Avenue in south St. Louis County.

And imagine millions of dollars of investments pumped into distressed neighborhoods along the route.

A fledgling group is trying to breathe new life into a more-than-$1 billion idea that would knit together some of the largest pockets of public transit riders with a MetroLink line to run north and south through St. Louis.

Among its members are former Missouri Sen. Joan Bray of University City, St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, and former East-West Gateway Council of Governments executive Les Sterman. Many of the group’s members were involved in helping defeat the Constitutional Amendment 7 transportation sales tax at the polls this summer. Its main target was highways and bridges.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s a large, difficult, complex project,” Sterman told the Post-Dispatch editorial board on Monday. “But for some reason, that prospect has never bothered us when it comes to building a major bridge or highway.”

Sterman, who was involved in the early planning of the original MetroLink line, said light-rail had been a regional success story, and a north-south MetroLink line emerged as a top priority in regional studies. Such a line would attract new riders, he said.

The region, he said, has been distracted from that MetroLink proposal with ideas such as a bus/rapid transit proposal, St. Louis streetcars and the Loop Trolley. In the meantime, money has been spent to expand major highways on the fringes of the region and to build new bridges.

“It’s still a great proposal,” Sterman said of the proposed MetroLink line. “I think the events of the last few months show us it makes even more sense as far as bringing this region together, and serving the people who need public transit.”

The grass-roots group is trying to determine how much Proposition A sales taxes have collected since the measure passed in 2010, in part on the promise to expand MetroLink.

The original north-south proposal was initially estimated at $1 billion in 2007 dollars. Members of the coalition would not venture a guess this week at the current price tag.

Sterman said the project’s finances would have to be “pieced together from a variety of funding sources.” Federal funds generally must be match on a roughly 50-50 level with local and regional matching money.

Backers say the new MetroLink project would be a major investment in struggling neighborhoods and communities in the wake of the Ferguson protests over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old.

They were quick to point out that public works such as the proposed transit line don’t always result in immediate private investment in distressed areas, but that private dollars can be expected eventually.

“The window of opportunity is now,” Ogilvie said.

He noted that St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley “was particularly tied to the Westport line” that would have run a MetroLink route farther to the west.

But Ogilvie said there was “no indication” that Steve Stenger, elected last week to replace Dooley, “is tied to that line.”

The north portion of the proposed route runs through Ferguson with a couple of stops there.

Because much of the right-of-way would run at grade level on major streets, Bray said, MoDOT road money might be available to pay for part of the project.

“This just seems like a no-brainer for this region to really work on for some economic justice, some transportation justice,” Bray said. “Something positive and forward-looking for the region.”

Meanwhile, Metro has proposed a bus/rapid transit line from West Florissant Avenue and Interstate 270 to downtown St. Louis. The transit agency would deploy frequent buses along the line, providing increased service at less cost than light rail.

Sterman and Bray agreed that their MetroLink proposal needed support from Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Stenger could not be reached on Monday. Slay spokeswoman Maggie Crane said the mayor would welcome the chance to talk to the group, although she acknowledged that finding the necessary funds would be an issue.

Ronald L. Roberts, vice president of McCormack Baron Salazar Development, Inc., said light rail could draw greater prosperity along its route.

Roberts noted that a developer was putting together a plan for the Wellston area, which is along the original MetroLink line.

“With our philosophy of going into a community, dealing with the issues that are plaguing the community ... I think there is a tremendous opportunity where we can utilize the movement of the north-south MetroLink line,” he said.