Traffic Jam: The solution to transportation woes may mean leaving the car at home
By: Jim Erickson
The love affair most West County residents have with their automobiles isn’t likely to end soon, but public transit developments are taking on a larger profile as developers, employers and younger generations recognize the value and need for such transportation.
For Metro Transit the focus is on the future – including bus rapid transit, light rail operations and commuter rail service.
With former Chesterfield Mayor John Nations at its helm, Metro Transit is quietly going about the task of operating the buses and light rail that carry people to and from St. Louis County, the city of St. Louis and St. Clair and Madison counties in Illinois – and planning for the region’s future needs.
“A lot of people may not realize or fully understand the impact that our operations have throughout the area,” said Nations.
John Langa, the company’s vice president of economic development, elaborated, noting that developers increasingly regard sites near mass transit routes and stations as being more desirable and that property values in such locations appear to reflect that demand.
He cited activities valued at some $1 billion that are either under construction or have been committed since early last year on properties within a quarter-mile of MetroLink’s light rail stations.
At a recent meeting of Progress 64 West, Jessica Mefford-Miller, Metro’s chief of planning and system development, cited studies showing that for every dollar invested in transit development, $4 in additional economic activity resulted.
What’s in store
When Nations was named to head Metro’s operations two years ago, he confidently said the company was ready to expand public transportation and make it even more of a factor in the area’s economic development. More recently, Mefford-Miller, in her meeting presentation, reviewed the short- and long-term growth the company anticipates. Included are:
• A bus rapid transit (BRT) plan that envisions higher-speed service using dedicated stations and fewer stops on existing highways and urban streets. The all-day, two-way routes would follow interstate highway corridors, namely I-55 to South County I-44 to Eureka, and I-64 to Chesterfield. Also, a BRT route using the I-70 corridor would extend into St. Charles County, an area not now served by Metro. In addition, a route linking the northern and southern parts of St. Louis also is being considered. To increase the speed of service, BRT routes anticipate using dedicated lanes. high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, and/or highway shoulders. On city streets, traffic signal prioritization could be employed.
• The expansion of light rail operations, including, as a top priority, extending to the Westport area the existing line that ends at Clayton. Other options include a branch into the Florissant area from the current route to Lambert Airport; extending the line now ending at Shrewsbury into South County; and extending a line from South County north through South St. Louis, into downtown and continuing into the north side and on into the Florissant Valley area. On the Illinois side, another alternative is a line leading from the existing route at East St. Louis that would head north and east through Madison County to Edwardsville. The ambitious plans come with a price tag estimated at $60 million per mile and likely are a decade or more from reality.
• Commuter rail service featuring longer distance routes operating during rush hours is also being considered as a viable future transportation option. Likely points from which the high-capacity diesel-powered trains would run to and from downtown are Pacific and Alton.
Metro’s goal is to complete the first and possibly a second BRT route and to wrap up planning and engineering for a new light rail route by 2016. By 2021, completion of one light rail route is anticipated, along with additional BRT routes. The schedule for longer-term projects extends to 2041.
More immediate steps include the 2013 opening of a North County transit center and an expanded Civic Center downtown transit center.
Funding may require local support
Finding the money to finance these projects clearly is a challenge.
Missouri, unlike many other states, is not a major source of financial support for metropolitan area transit systems. That means Metro relies on local and federal revenue sources, in addition to other miscellaneous grants and assistance, and passenger fares.
Passenger fares constitute only about 19 percent of Metro’s total transit revenue and fall well short of even covering Metro’s costs for employee wages and benefits.
Metro’s ability to keep all of its transit operations running and meet its debt obligations and other expenses came to an end in 2009 when the company was forced to make major cuts in service to keep its head above water. An emergency, short-term state appropriation provided stop-gap funding to restore some of the transit routes but many employees who relied on public transportation suddenly found they had no reliable, long-term way to get to and from work.
That reality brought together scores of businesses and a wide range of community organizations to support a ballot proposal for a sales tax increase to restore deleted services and to expand transit operations throughout the area.
Nations played a leadership role in the 2010 campaign, which gained strong voter support and was approved. He described an experience that emphasized one of the effort’s most persuasive talking points – while not everyone uses the transit system, everyone relies on those who do. The situation involved a woman who approached Nations with both an apology and words of thanks.
“This woman’s mother was in a Chesterfield nursing home and many of the employees there relied on Metro to get to and from work,” Nations recalled. “She told me she never used Metro and hadn’t been a supporter of the system until she happened to hear a presentation I made about the importance of the system to everyone, with some examples involving local businesses and their operations.
“She said it was only then she realized that people involved in taking care of her mother needed Metro’s services to get to work. She thanked me for what I had said and apologized for not having thought about that aspect of the issue before.”
Backing the right horse
Raymond Friem, Metro’s chief operating officer for transit, firmly believes Metro’s customers can be confident in the quality of the company’s services. He backs up that view with a number of observations and facts, including the fact that Metro’s painstaking maintenance program enables the company to get 50 percent more use from its buses both in terms of years of effective service and mileage.
“Metro was nominated for having the best maintenance department among transit systems worldwide and we were the only North American operation that wound up in the top five,” Friem said. “Our maintenance costs actually are lower now than they were a few years ago and our reliability record is six times better, too.
“Manufacturers like to test their transportation-related products with us because they know their equipment and ours will be taken care of properly and that test results will be that much more reliable.”
Metro’s maintenance department has attracted other attention, too, and it now maintains fire trucks operated by the St. Louis Fire Department.
Metro’s security department has received the federal Transportation Security Administration’s Gold Standard Award for the passenger safety record the local transit operation has posted.
“Metro’s operations have been written about in various trade publications, and while that’s nice, the main thing is that we feel we are using taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively,” Friem said. “Federal grants more and more are based on results, and we like that because we know we can win in that kind of competition.”
The power of partnership
Nations emphasized that Metro doesn’t make its plans and operate in a vacuum. It works closely with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the region’s metropolitan planning organization, as well as the city of St. Louis and St. Louis and St. Clair counties.
Other partnerships include St. Charles Area Transit and Madison County (Illinois) Transit, whose routes connect with Metro’s, and the St. Clair County Transit District, with which Metro contracts to provide transportation services to the 15 townships that make up the district.
And of course, developers and the riding public play a role.
“We are seeing some trends that we think are favorable for the future of public transportation systems,” said Metro’s Langa. “Younger generations are changing their habits and their attitudes toward public transit. The ‘green’ movement is part of that, but I think it’s probably more than that one factor alone.
“Developers also are taking much more interest in the availability of public transportation, and we have relationships with all kinds of developers throughout the area.”
Will there come a day when West County residents leave their cars at home in favor of hitching a ride with Metro? Some already do.
Gary Wilson of Maryland Heights is probably one of Metro Transit’s more experienced customers.
Since 1973, his preferred way of getting to and from work at US Bank’s downtown St. Louis operation hasn’t involved battling traffic and the elements. Instead he strolls a couple of blocks from his home to the Metro bus stop at Dorsett and McKelvey roads and hops aboard the 6 a.m. bus that takes him where he wants to go.
Once Wilson’s commute was all the way downtown, but since the 1990s, it has been to the Hanley Road MetroLink station for the rest of the trip.
“I’m just not crazy about driving,” Wilson explained. “There’s all the wear and tear on the car and on me, plus gas and parking expense. I get downtown in just over an hour, but I can read the paper, go over things from work or check emails on my smartphone. Sometimes I doze off.”
Wilson buys a monthly pass for $72 and figures he saves a bundle.
“I think everyone should try it,” he said, adding that he never has feared for his safety while using Metro.
Jan Herwed, a St. Louis County resident in the Ballwin area, gave a similar testimonial.
“I hate to drive,” she said one recent morning as she waited at a park-and-ride lot for a bus to a midtown office of St. Louis University where she is on staff.
“I’m glad to have the option of taking the bus,” she continued. “It’s very reliable and I certainly recommend it. Those few months a couple of years ago when there was no service available were very stressful for me.”
Metro by the numbers – a brief history
What’s now known as Metro Transit has experienced major change and diversification since it What’s now known as Metro Transit has experienced major change and diversification since it was formed more than 60 years ago. And while its buses and MetroLink light rail system are fairly well known, its Call-A-Ride service and its operation of the Gateway Arch trams and riverboats and the St. Louis Downtown Airport at Cahokia-Sauget, Ill., may not be as familiar.
Established in 1949 under an interstate agreement between Missouri and Illinois that was approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Truman, the organization first was known as the Bi-State Development Agency (BDSA). The Metro name wasn’t adopted until 2003.
After its formation, 14 years passed before BDSA operated its first public transit vehicle. In the interim, it launched a comprehensive planning process for metropolitan area development, sponsored a Mississippi River water quality study that led to local industries agreeing to treat wastes to reduce pollution, and completed a review of St. Louis County sewer problems that led to the creation of the Metropolitan Sewer District.
The agency also sponsored an area-wide survey of highways and expressways, one of the nation’s first instances of coordinated interstate highway planning.
BDSA’s move into public transportation in 1963 was born of necessity. At that time, some 15 different transit firms operated in the area with little or no coordination of transfers and schedules. Not surprisingly, fares were on the rise, ridership was down and the financial viability of the operators was a serious question.
A joint St. Louis City-County study recommended a unified, regional approach for public transit and BDSA ultimately purchased the 15 firms’ transit facilities and began operating them.
Today, Metro’s operations highlights include:
• 73 MetroBus routes in Missouri and Illinois, with more than 6,000 bus stops.
• 37 MetroLink stations.
• More than 18 million annual bus and rail service miles.
• More than 4.8 million Call-A-Ride service miles.
• More than 45 million annual boardings.• More than 18 million annual bus and rail service miles.
- • More than 4.8 million Call-A-Ride service miles.
- • More than 45 million annual boardings.
Activity at the Downtown St. Louis airport ranks behind only Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway as the busiest in the state and second busiest in the St. Louis area.