Light Rail Never Sleeps: The Saint Louis Edition
Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that St. Louis Metro would receive a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant to build a new MetroLink Station between Boyle Avenue and Sarah Street. The $10.3 million grant covers most of the total cost ($12.9 million) of the project, which includes ancillary items like bike paths along with the station.
The St. Louis Streetcar project, which did not receive a TIGER grant, has garnered less attention. The plan would have built a 6.9-mile streetcar system from downtown Saint Louis to the Central West End, at a cost of $270 million (likely a low estimate).
You may not have heard much about this project, because Metro never mentions adding streetcars in its Long-Range Transit Plan. Their long-term improvements are focused on expanding MetroLink or adding bus rapid transit, but not adding a streetcar network. Nor was the project part of East-West Gateway’s (the Saint Louis metropolitan planning agency) Regional Transportation Plan when it was released in 2011 (it was added in 2013). City leadership did not discuss the plan until it was suddenly to receive tens of millions of dollars from the ill-fated Amendment 7.
The downtown streetcar is primarily the creation of Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, an organization whose membership is mostly made up of corporate representatives and whose budget comes from property taxes collected from a Community Improvement District (CID) located downtown. They created the plan and lobbied the city to submit the TIGER grant application. Although the process used to create the streetcar plan did not come from city residents, the methods of payment would have. The proposed methods of payment included a Transportation Development District (with accompanying sales and property taxes), Tax Increment Financing, tax credits, and parking fees.
Those new taxes and fees would have been a hard sell for a transportation mode that shadows the MetroLink and does not provide rapid transit. However, Saint Louis residents should be upset that non-elected corporate representatives were promising residents’ local tax dollars in order to get a piece of residents’ federal tax dollars. This episode also should be a warning that local non-governmental organizations have the ability to push forward wasteful civic projects with taxpayer money.