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St. Louis:
Model of Light Rail Success Hosts international Light Rail Conference

Light Rail Now Project Team – April 2006

From 9-11 April 2006, as St. Louis hosted the Joint international Light Rail Conference, the city's exceptionally successful light rail transit (LRT) system – MetroLink – became the star of of the show.

Co-sponsored by the US Transportation Research Board (TRB), the international Association of Public Transport (UITP), and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), and specifically hosted by Metro, the St. Louis transit agency, the Joint international Light Rail Conference brought together experts and experience from around the world for a dozen technical sessions focusing on the design, management, and operations of light rail systems. (For more information on this conference, see Joint international Light Rail Conference.)

impressive light rail success

St. Louis LRT St. Louis, with one of the most impressive LRT systems in North America, has been a particularly appropriate city to host this historic conference. As Light Rail Now has noted (see our 16 February article St. Louis: Soaring light rail ridership boosts entire transit system) MetroLink's current weekday ridership has recently been averaging between 51,000-55,000, with annual ridership totalling about 16 million per year and 133 million annual passenger-miles – already a significant increase over 2003, when MetroLink's ridership totalled about 15 million annually and 124,972,600 passenger-miles.

These ridership figures for the MetroLink LRT system stand in stark contrast to those of Metro's entire 101-route bus system, which in 2003 accounted for only 122,165,700 passenger-miles but at far greater operational cost. In other words, Metro's single modest 38-mile LRT line accounts for more passenger-miles than all of the 101 bus routes also operated by the transit agency.

As our 16 February report further noted,

The accomplishments of MetroLink are particularly impressive if one goes further into the past.... in FY 1993, without MetroLink, St. Louis's buses moved only 173,582,057 passenger-miles compared with a total bus and rail figure of about 247 million in 2003. Thus, over approximately a decade, MetroLink has boosted transit use more than 42 percent with just a single, long line.

On the whole, MetroLink's performance provides an excellent model – certainly, for cities across North America – of the kinds of public transport successes that can be achieved with a well-designed and well-managed application of LRT technology.

Overview of system

The 38-mile (61-km) MetroLink system (see map) with its 28 stations (including two in subways and three elevated) has characteristics of both an interurban LRT (particularly as it reaches eastward into the illinois countryside) and a semi-metro, running mostly on grade-separated and exclusive alignments connecting East St. Louis (illinois), central St. Louis (Missouri), and the city's western suburbs out to the Lambert-St. Louis international Airport. It's a totally highfloor system with high-platform stations, somewhat similar in design to LRT in Los Angeles. The website provides an excellent summary of the system written by Dave Steckler and Mark Michalovic.

St. Louis LRT map The system currently consists of two routes extending west and east from the St. Louis CBD. As Steckler and Michalovic explain, the first line, 17 miles (27 km) long, was opened in July 1993.

About 14 miles (23 km) of the LRT alignment use various pre-existing rail rights-of-way, including an abandoned freight railroad tunnel under downtown St. Louis, and an old railway alignment across the rail deck of the Eads Bridge to downtown East St. Louis; an abandoned baggage-handling tunnel beneath the venerable Union Station (located a bit west of the St. Louis CBD, and rehabilitated in the late 1980s as a major shopping mall, hotel, and restaurant venue); and much of the former alignment of the defunct Wabash Railroad. At the far western end of the route, to access the airport, highway right-of-way is used, plus a portion of airport property.

Because of the downtown rail tunnel, MetroLink has two subway stations – 8th & Pine and Convention Center. As Steckler and Michalovic note,

The tunnel is a former freight line tunnel with a beautiful masonry arched roof. Busch Stadium station is outside the west mouth of the tunnel. Laclede's Landing station is at the east mouth, inside the masonry of the anchor of the Eads Bridge, offering a nice view of the Gateway Arch, framed by Roman-style masonry arches.

MetroLink's East Riverfront station in illinois and Lambert Main Terminal station at Lambert-St. Louis international Airport, as Steckler and Michalovic also note, opened in 1994; the Lambert East Terminal station opened in 1998. In its initial phase, MetroLink operated from the airport, through the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus, under Union Station, through a tunnel under downtown St. Louis, and across the Eads Bridge, to terminate in downtown East St. Louis, illinois.

MetroLink's second route, a 17-mile (27-km) extension, opened in May 2001, extending the line further eastward into illinois with 8 additional stations, terminating at Southwestern illinois College, and with large park-and-ride lots constructed at all but one of the 8 new stations. A further extension of this line north and east to Shiloh-Scott Air Force Base opened in 2003. An additional extension to the Mid-America Airport is presently in planning (shown as a dashed line at the eastern end of the map above).

Steckler and Michalovic's description of the line is worth noting:

While the original line runs through some pretty gritty urban areas, the new extension (once past East St. Louis) becomes increasingly rural, with some segments of the line passing through corn fields. At times, it feels like riding an interurban.

A north-south line – the Cross-County Extension (shown in green on the map above) – has been under construction and is nearing completion. This 8.2-mile, US$680-million line will link the existing Forest Park station west of the central city to the important suburban town of Clayton, somewhat southwest, and then turn southeast to terminate in the suburb of Shrewsbury. While the new line is mostly in a surface alignment, significant segments (including some stations) are in subway of elevated – driving the cost up to a hefty $83 million per mile. The project cost is covered totally with local bond proceeds – federal funding was not sought.

Another major project now under way is the city's Multi-Modal Station, which will provide a central hub adjacent to downtown St. Louis for transportation for residents, tourists, and other travellers. The new station will provide the ability to transfer directly to and from Amtrak trains, MetroLink, and MetroBus services. Also, there will be a good connection with Greyhound intercity motor coach services through MetroLink and MetroBus. The station is located across the street from the Sheraton City Centre Hotel & Suites, and the Hyatt Regency at Union Station is one MetroLink stop away.

Shaky funding

The transit system's spectacular resurgence has taken place despite one of the poorest public financing structures in the USA. As Tom Shrout, Executive Director of the St. Louis transit advocacy group Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT) has explained, St. Louis's Metro is dependent almost entirely on local sales tax for its operations, but this is relatively small compared to many other municipalities: "3/4 cent in the City of St. Louis and effectively about 6/10 [cent] in St. Louis County and 3/4-cent in St. Clair County, illinois." The state of Missouri contributes less than $1 million per year.

"Sales tax revenues have been stagnant during the recession and have not grown in years in St. Louis City" says Shrout. "We might begin to see some reversal of that because of the new growth we are seeing in the city, especially downtown and the Central West End – stimulated in part by MetroLink.

St. Louis County "grew for years with out-migration from the city" Shrout further notes.

Now it is composed mostly of older, spread-out suburbs and its growth has stagnated. In short, sprawl has eroded the tax base. Fortunately we are seeing higher-density development occurring around Cross County MetroLink stations in Clayton and at Eager Rd. and the Galleria that are yet to open. I expect to see more of this as several municipalities are anxious to maximize their investment.

LRT is "crown jewel" of transit system

Despite the financial uncertainties, it's clear that MetroLink has been an enormous asset to St. Louis, its mobility, and its economic development. Backers had promised that at least a billion dollars' worth of private development would be attracted around MetroLink stations. By the system's 10-year anniversary in 2003, Metro issued a list of some 31 developments totaling just under $2 billion in investment around MetroLink stations (although a few were public investments).

The impact of transit-oriented development (TOD) has been particularly strong in the city's downtown. According to CMT, "Millions of dollars have ... been invested in the redevelopment of buildings in downtown St. Louis adjacent or within walking distance into residential lofts."

"MetroLink is the crown jewel of the transit system and one of Metro's biggest success stories, reversing a long, slow period of general decline in transit ridership" declares international Business Publishers in a 2003 booklet celebrating MetroLink's 10-year anniversary. Elsewhere, the booklet emphasizes MetroLink's economic advantages:

Rail makes up about 24.1 percent of Metro's operating budget, with labor costs accounting for about 69 percent of Metro's overall transit operating costs. Light rail's higher capacity and lower cost per passenger make economic sense for St. Louis, a fact not lost on other cities.

MetroLink LRT has revitalized transit

But by far the most spectacular success brought by MetroLink is that it has totally revitalized the performance of all public transit in St. Louis – reversing the steady downward trend that characterized the all-bus transit system preceding the installation of the LRT system.

As Lyndon Henry and David Dobbs have noted in their analysis Why St. Louis's MetroLink Light Railway is a Mobility Bargain, St. Louis's LRT "is surely as close as one gets in the real world to an example of a successful urban project" – reversing, even as early as 1994 (MetroLink's first full year) the long decline of St. Louis transit, as shown in the graph of systemwide ridership, from 1988 through 2002, accompanying the article:

St. Louis Transit Ridership 1988-2002

And, as the graph below – from Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT) – illustrates, Metrolink's ridership has continued to climb since 2002. This is corroborated by figures in the 10 April Passenger Transport, which reports: "MetroLink ridership is up more than 6.5 percent in the current fiscal year, and that follows FY 2005 ridership gains of nearly 8 percent over the year before."


And the overwhelming majority of that ridership appears to be coming from "choice" travellers who would otherwise be helping clog St. Louis freeways, arterialsm, and parking lots with an avalanche of more private vehicles. According to data published by CMT, 68% of MetroLink riders own two or more cars.

Moreover, according to a Metro survey, the overwhelming proportion – nearly 80% – of MetroLink riders are not former bus passengers, but are totally new to transit, as the pie graph below (from CMT) illustrates.


Today MetroLink's system has expanded into what Passenger Transport characterizes as "the spine of the area's world-class public transportation system" (and remember – that's the transit system that was withering away before MetroLink). The rolling stock fleet has grown to a total of 87 high-performance railcars, and the 8.2-mile Cross County Extension (described briefly above) is set to open sometime this year (2006).

And MetroLink continues to infuse the total transit system with renewed vitality. As Passenger Transport points out, "Most MetroLink passengers also use MetroBus." in other words, light rail is helping revitalize the bus system!

As the booklet celebrating MetroLink's 10-year anniversary highlighted in 2003, "Today, it appears that the key elements are in place for St. Louis to have one of the premier integrated transit systems in the country. After 10 years of successful operation, some would say it's just a matter of time."

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2006/04/24

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