Riding the Dream-Train to Development Bliss
We’re no real-estate experts, but what you see above (the Sunnen Station on the MetroLink Blue Line) clearly isn’t “beachfront property.” For some reason, rail boosters would disagree—according to them, this is what everybody in town wants.
A recent article in the Post-Dispatch insinuated the lifeblood of St. Louis was at stake in efforts to expand the MetroLink. Because MetroLink is such a successful (???) driver of mixed-use development, by not expanding it into depressed or underdeveloped areas, we’re letting the urban core languish. At least that's the story. Reality is quite different.
Here are some uncontroversial facts.
- MetroLink has failed to significantly spur development (and especially the dense mixed-use development that planners dream of).
- MetroLink is incredibly expensive and inefficient. As my former colleague Joseph Miller has pointed out, since 1992, MetroLink has cost St. Louis taxpayers $3 billion, and despite system expansion, MetroLink is at a decade low for ridership, with just 2.55 riders per revenue mile.
- On top of this, MetroLink expansions—and rail projects in general—tend to go far over budget.
Despite all this, regional leaders and rail proponents continue to argue that expanding the MetroLink will catapult the region into some utopian age of livable-community bliss. Having vibrant, “walkable” communities is a noble goal, but if rail proponents really think they can just build a train and turn the region around, they’re woefully misunderstanding the fundamentals of economic and neighborhood development.
The fact is that driving sustainable development is hard. Neighborhoods like the Central West End and Soulard don't just pop up because politicians and planners put in rail lines. In reality, when development does occur around rail stations, those projects are, nearly without fail, accompanied by generous tax subsidies, relaxed zoning, and other government perks. To think rail is some development silver bullet is to confuse the powers of a whole subsidy package with just one of its constituent parts. If economic development really is the goal planners have in mind, they would do better by removing hurdles to business and growth and save the cost of expanding MetroLink.
The truth is that a $2.2 billion expansion of the MetroLink won’t spark a development frenzy, but it will create a massive new taxpayer burden.