Unite the Region with a Sensible, Effective Transit Vision
In a recent Post-Dispatch column, Tony Messenger called for an ‘AND’ approach to transit planning in the St. Louis region. He thinks the region should collectively fund and pursue projects x and y, not either project x or y. In his view, that means regional leaders should unify behind efforts to expand MetroLink, St. Louis’s light rail system.
But the AND approach isn’t a simple matter of uniting the region for a common goal. Where MetroLink is concerned, the AND approach will benefit some at the expense of others. In more concrete terms: the City needs the County’s tax revenue if MetroLink expansion—in any direction—is going to be feasible. But the County has made clear it isn’t enthusiastic about funding the city’s favored north–south expansion. (Note: the County’s transit sales tax revenue is triple that of the City’s. See p. 67)
So, should the County and City just take their toys and go home? Of course not—the AND approach isn’t the problem. The problem is the goal the AND approach is supposed to achieve: a costly $2.2 billion expansion of the inefficient and underused MetroLink, which would mostly lie within City limits.
Recognizing this fact lifts the shroud of mystery surrounding regional infighting. MetroLink expansion is so expensive it would force the County to fund the bulk of a project that will primarily benefit the City. It’s so expensive that it creates an either/or approach to regional transit planning.
But what if, instead of an immensely expensive light-rail expansion that would require every tax dollar it could get its hands on, regional leaders invested in a system of bus-rapid-transit lines that could be constructed and operated at a fraction of the cost. That is, imagine a project that wouldn’t gobble up every last dollar the region has to offer, would actually serve regional transportation needs, and didn’t pit County against City.
If the region’s transit priorities were more in line with its resources, there might not be an either/or approach to transit in St. Louis. Messenger got things backwards: MetroLink expansion isn’t the victim of regionalism—it’s the cause of it.
So long as a costly MetroLink expansion is the goal, it doesn’t matter how well the region’s leaders get along. With the north–south expansion in particular, the City can win only at the expense of the County. That is an either/or approach. If leaders are to unite behind a transit plan, that plan will need to effectively serve all of the region’s residents at a price they are all willing to pay.