Mayor Slay and many—but not all—regional leaders are peddling a curious elixir: a $2 billion expansion of MetroLink. The expansion would create a new line running from north Saint Louis County, through downtown, to South County. But what condition is this elixir supposed to treat? Well that’s unclear, as the list of ailments that light rail allegedly cures is long and seems to change depending on the patient.
What is clear, though, is that the north–south MetroLink expansion isn’t the panacea advocates claim it is.
It isn’t a solution to automobile dependence. Saint Louis’s low population density and dispersed employment centers make the city a bad fit for light rail. Popular, cost-effective light rail systems require population densities upwards of 20,000 people per square mile, but Saint Louis City has fewer than 5,000 per square mile. And experience with existing MetroLink routes demonstrates our region’s preference for the car. Today, a lower percentage of Saint Louisans use transit than in 1990, before MetroLink even operated. Even more embarrassing, MetroLink has lower ridership today than it did in 2005, the year before the Shrewsbury line opened.
It isn’t a solution to poor transit service, either. Firstly, the proposed north-south line operates along a route already served by numerous bus routes. Secondly, the reason less than 4% of Saint Louisans commute on transit isn’t because they have trouble going from North City to downtown. It’s because the antiquated “hub and spoke” model Metro uses makes travelling from North City to employment centers in Central and West County a multi-transfer odyssey. If regional leaders truly want to improve mobility, they’d do better by advancing bus-rapid-transit (BRT) lines. BRT uses sleek, rail-like vehicles, well-appointed and generously-spaced stations, and exclusive rights-of-way to deliver service comparable to light rail. For just a fifth of the local cost of expanding MetroLink, the region could construct the five BRT lines in its long-range transportation plan.
Nor is MetroLink a cure for anemic urban development. Despite claims of rail advocates, the economic consensus is that light rail is not a catalyst for economic growth. Even putting aside the wildly inflated figures touted by rail advocates, we can see with our own two eyes that MetroLink has failed to spur development in Saint Louis. Far from rejuvenating depressed areas, MetroLink has even failed to prevent decline in areas that seemed to be on the rise in 1994 when the first lines opened, like Union Station and Laclede’s Landing. Nor did it ever bring the fantastically improbable golf course to East Saint Louis.
And MetroLink will not solve historic segregation or achieve the nebulous goal of “connectedness.” There simply is no evidence, save the endless, unfounded repetition of rail advocates, that light rail is a solution to economic, social, or racial segregation. (Just think: how might riding a train downtown, where so few jobs exist, make life better for an average North City resident?) And if “connectedness” means residents and visitors have the ability to travel from North or South County to downtown, then we’ve achieved it, as these areas are already connected by bus and bikes routes, streets, and sidewalks. No, these areas are not connected by rail—but if the argument is that we need rail because we don’t have rail, then advocates are running in circles.
Soon, the Mayor and rail proponents will stop begging the question and start begging for money. When they do, Saint Louisans should carefully consider what benefits could possibly justify a $2 billion MetroLink expansion, and whether or not it’s just an expensive “remedy” to treat problems for which we already have more sound solutions.