MetroLink Light Rail is MetroWaste
A version of this commentary appeared in the St. Louis Business Journal.
Between 2014 and 2019, ridership on St. Louis Metro buses and light-rail trains dropped by nearly 25 percent. Thanks to the pandemic, ridership in recent months has only been half what it was in 2019, and thanks to increased numbers of people working at home it may not ever return to 2019 levels.
This suggests that St. Louis doesn’t need to spend hundreds of millions—or billions—of dollars building new light-rail lines. Yet that is exactly what St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones wants to do, not because St. Louis needs it, but because federal funding might become available for it. That federal funding would depend on local matching funds, meaning St. Louis taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes for train rides few of them will take.
St. Louis’s light-rail record is unimpressive. In 2001, Metro opened the 17-mile MetroLink College extension, doubling the total number of miles in the system. Metro carried fewer bus and light-rail riders the year after opening this line than it had carried the year before. The same thing happened when it opened the 3.5-mile Shiloh-Scott extension in 2003. The 8-mile Shrewsbury-Lansdowne MetroLink extension gained some new riders, but all of those riders were lost after the 2008 financial crisis, and most never came back.
Overall, light rail has failed to boost the region’s transit ridership. In 1993, before the region’s first light-rail line opened, buses carried 40.3 million riders. Since then, Metro has spent around $2.5 billion building 45 miles of light-rail lines. In 2019, buses and light rail together carried 36.1 million riders, 11 percent fewer than before light rail.
Part of the problem is that light rail is functionally obsolete: just about anything light rail can do, buses can do better for far less money. Counting capital costs, Metro spent $12.80 per light-rail rider but only $8.30 per bus rider in 2019.
The current proposal to expand MetroLink with a new north–south corridor line through downtown fails on two key fronts. First, while transit advocates say spending more money on transit helps low-income people, the fact is that most low-income people do not take transit to work. Census Bureau survey data show that only 4.4 percent of St. Louis–area workers who earned less than $25,000 a year took transit to work in 2019. Meanwhile, the sales taxes used to support Metro buses and light rail are highly regressive, meaning the 95.6 percent of low-income people who aren’t dependent on transit are disproportionately paying taxes to support rides they aren’t taking.
Second, cities that have successful rail transit have a high concentration of jobs in a central business district, and St. Louis is not one of those cities. The percentage of regional jobs in downtown St. Louis has been declining for years. It is currently down to about 60,000 employees downtown, very few of whom take light rail to work. Expanding MetroLink on the proposed north–south route will be a very expensive attempt to take people who don’t use light rail for work to jobs in an area where they don’t work.
The places in downtown St. Louis that benefit from MetroLink (the stadiums, convention center, etc.) already have it. The money Metro wisely spent adding and improving stations at Cortex and Barnes Hospital cost a fraction of the amount of a new line and served an area where people of all incomes actually use MetroLink to go to work. (The Barnes/Central West End stop is the busiest stop in the system.)
Meanwhile, while we debate MetroLink’s further expansion, Metro’s bus system is “disintegrating,” says engineer Richard Bose at the pro-transit NextSTL website, because the agency can’t find enough drivers to keep it operating. Jones and other city and regional officials should devote their efforts toward helping Metro run the system it already has rather than trying to expand it. Federal and local funds spent on an effective bus system offer a better solution to address the needs of the people who live in North St. Louis County. Otherwise, people might get the idea that the real purpose of light-rail transit is not to move people, but to move dollars from taxpayers’ pockets into the hands of light-rail contractors.