East-West Gateway puts south county MetroLink expansion on hold

By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

Plans to expand MetroLink to south county have been put on the shelf and possibly rerouted toward north county or west county.

The East-West Gateway Coordinating Council’s Board of Directors, which decides where the expansion will be, approved a staff recommendation last week to defer a selection until a local funding mechanism is in place. Once in place, however, there is no guarantee the light rail will travel to south county.

“We wanted to look at all of the different corridors and studies in the county that we’ve done,” including north and west counties, Donna Day, an East-West Gateway study manager, told the Call.

The announcement comes just weeks after County Executive Charlie Dooley named a committee to consider the best railway expansion in St. Louis County.

“One of the things I’ve been talking about is how to get mass transit in St. Louis County that makes sense to all St. Louis County,” said Dooley, who also serves on Gateway’s Board of Directors. “What are some of the best routes in the north, south and west? What are the cost factors and how can we get it funded?”

Responding to Dooley’s announcement, County Councilman John Campisi said, “I don’t understand why we’d be talking about north county when we don’t even have funding for south county yet. I just don’t understand why we’re setting up a committee to study that when Bi-State’s already done it.”

Campisi, R-south county, supports an 11-mile MetroLink expansion from Shrewsbury along the River Des Peres and Interstate 55 to Butler Hill Road, saying the most people would be served. The railway would cost nearly $650 million.

“If they want ridership, that’s where they’ll get ridership,” he said, adding, “That might give the city and county the ability to spruce up the River Des Peres area. And maybe Pinnacle can use it also.”

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. is seeking a Missouri gaming license to develop a casino by the Mississippi River in Lemay. The MetroLink expansion could help expand tourism and business for the casino and south county, the councilman said.

A funding mechanism doesn’t exist, however.

Without a specific local revenue source, the federal government will not match funding, so Gateway officials last week decided to put expansion talks on the back burner indefinitely.

“We would need to have local funds and a local financial plan to match the federal New Starts Program, which is the Federal Transit Administration’s pot of money for projects like this,” said Justin Carney, deputy project manager.

Plus, “competition for federal funding is now extremely tight, with most major cities in the country vying for limited funding,” according to the Gateway staff recommendation.

St. Louis city and county taxpayers currently are funding a $550 million expansion from Forest Park to Shrewsbury through a quarter-cent sales tax that voters approved in 1994. In 1997, however, county voters rejected a ballot measure to double that tax to fund MetroLink expansion in south county.

And while Campisi supports the expansion, he doesn’t support any tax increase to further support MetroLink — a percentage of county tax revenue already helps fund the current MetroLink system. Instead, he said the county may have to sift through current revenues, finding a way to save money to help fund an expansion in the future.

Plans to expand MetroLink have been gathering steam since 2002 when local leaders began looking for ways to cut travel times to St. Louis and throughout south county while stimulating job growth, fostering business development and increasing the desirability of residential living in the area.

For two years, Gateway has studied several options for MetroLink expansion in south county.

Besides Campisi’s pick, Gateway studied four other possible south county expansions:

• A $700 million, 8.5-mile railway along the Burlington Northern railroad down to Butler Hill Road.

• A $339.5 million railway running 6.9 miles along the River Des Peres to Reavis Barracks Road.

• A $112 million, 1.5-mile track following the River Des Peres to the Trianon Parkway by Watson Road.

• A $91 million, 1.1-mile extension along the Burlington Northern railway to Watson Road.

A research team has been analyzing the pros and cons of each option for the past two years, looking at potential ridership, property value benefits, potential job growth, residential and commercial displacements, attraction destinations and noise pollution, among other factors.

The study could not give a clear-cut answer concerning which railway could best serve south county, however.

To deviate from current plans and studies for south county, Campisi said would be “a huge waste of people’s time. To throw out everything they’ve been doing for the past two years would be completely insane.”