North-South MetroLink Line Wasteful, Unnecessary
A group of Saint Louis officials and former regional planners are again making the case for a north-south MetroLink line, this time running from Ferguson to Bayless Avenue in South Saint Louis County. While we have consistently argued that public transportation investments are best made around this corridor, the light rail option is many times the cost of Bus Rapid Transit or other improvements.
So how much will the proposed line cost? According to the Post-Dispatch: “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.”
The latest plan actually goes further north than the $1 billion plan suggested by East-West Gateway (EWG) in 2008. According to East-West Gateway’s Vision 2040 (released in 2011), the cost for a route from Florissant Valley Community College to Butler Hill (going further south than the current proposal) was more than $1.6 billion. It is therefore safe to assume that the plan will cost between $1 billion and $1.6 billion, probably closer to $1.6 billion when adjusted for inflation. To put that in perspective, this MetroLink expansion would cost between $2,700 and $4,406 for every person living near the proposed line.
Proponents hope, and likely require, that the federal government will pay up to half of the costs of building the new route. Even allowing that, the city and county would be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs and additional annual operating costs likely to exceed $20 million per year. That will mean tax increases in the city and county, all to add 12,000 to 15,000 transit riders per day. For perspective, Saint Louis City and County combined have more than 630,000 daily commuters.
There exists a much more cost-effective way of increasing transit service along the city’s north-south corridor: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT can, and does in other cities, provide the speed and comfort of light rail service for a fraction of rail’s price. Metro is in the process of implementing BRT in Saint Louis right now, and we have argued that BRT routes serving the city and North Saint Louis County make the most sense. According to EWG, running BRT on Grand from Natural Bridge to Chippewa would cost a total of $24 million to implement. That’s less than half the cost of one mile of the proposed MetroLink expansion. In fact, Metro could afford to implement all five of its preferred BRT routes for less than 20 percent the cost of the north-south MetroLink proposal.
MetroLink proponents make the same ungrounded claims about the rail transforming marginalized communities as they did two decades ago (remember the golf course in East Saint Louis?). Now, just as then, it is not rail, but rather improved transportation that raises living standards. And in terms of improving transportation, the relative merits and incredible cost differential between BRT and light rail should be the end of the argument.