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I-64, Light Rail and Transit Suburbs

July 9, 2009 Public Transit, Transportation 17 Comments

A few years ago when talk began of rebuilding part of I-64 (known locally as Highway 40) and extending the region’s light rail system, MetroLink, people had suggested putting the light rail down the center of the rebuilt highway.  Ultimately these systems were kept separate.  The light rail extension opened on August 26, 2007 (see post) and Hwy 40 will be complete by the end of 2009.

I never supported the transit in the center of the highway concept for St. Louis.  Here’s why:

Rail in the center of a highway works well when it takes forever to drive to your destination and costs a fortune to park once you’ve arrived.  In the St. Louis region drive times are short and parking is cheap.  Once a person is in their car to drive to the train at the highway they are likely to just stay in their car — no incentive to switch modes.

Another reason would have been the logistics of getting a line out the center of Hwy 40  Existing lines crossed 40 at Vandeventer and further east — both away from the highway construction zone.  As a city person that takes the train outward the center highway option would have delivered me to the center of a highway — not useful to me.

While in Chicago last weekend I visited two transit suburbs — Oak Park & Evanston.  Both developed around heavy rail transit.  St. Louis has no equal.  Ferguson, Kirkwood & Webster Groves are the closest we’ve got but these were more railroad towns than transit suburbs.

Above is Marion St. in downtown Oak Park,  IL.  At the end of the street a Metra stop crosses overhead.  These transit suburbs have the same formula — a few blocks of commercial around the stop and then detached single family homes.  You will have apartments above the retail and perhaps a corner apartment building but the housing is primarily single family.  Residents along these lines continue to support transit because the drive to downtown Chicago takes time and once there it is not cheap.

Map of Main St. stop in Evanston IL

St. Louis never had such a system.  Our suburbs never developed as Oak Park or Evanston did.  Attempting to retrofit transits systems later is a major challenge. Putting rail down a highway, if you could, is not going to make the highway suburb transit friendly.

St. Louis did have a complete streetcar network in the city and inner-ring suburbs.  Returning to such makes sense both functionally and economically.  Running light rail down the center of a highway out to suburbs built around the car would have been a major waste of money.  Of course we wasted tons of money having to put much of the light rail extension underground rather than at grade as it should have been.

We’ve got to figure out the best way to weave transit into our non-transit friendly region.  To me that is maintain our current light rail system with streetcar & buses serving the core (city + inner ring suburbs) and buses to serve the areas outside the core.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

  1. Chris says:

    I agree that transit down the middle of the highway is a bad idea–except in a city like Chicago where the traffic is so awful that taking the El down the middle of the interstate IS faster.

  2. Steveo says:

    The problem here is that everyone on the train would be watching cars moving faster on the Interstate (unless there’s a crash or something of that sort). It works in Chicago because train riders typically watch cars moving much much slower than the train.

  3. john says:

    Road-highway infrastructure is destiny as it defines the relationship between home, work and preferred destinations. Apparently what is good, workable and successful in Chicago doesn’t work in St. Louis. Absolute nonsense as the problems are really over expanded highways and free parking in StL. Of course it is much more complicated than that but the failure to integrate modes of travel (and therefore choices) dooms alternatives here… unless you believe that visiting River Des Peres is one of the highlights of St. Louis.
    – –
    The best “free ad” for alternatives is when they clearly show an advantage over current popular means of travel. Of course that will never happen here do to Metro’s mismanagement. “Residents along these lines continue to support transit because the drive to downtown… takes time and once there it is not cheap.” Exactly, we expanded 64 and continue to require the majority of customers pay more for goods so others can have free parking. Therefore mass transit is purposely designed here to serve only a small minority and will therefore never be popular or successful in the region. DOOMED by design should be the title of this entry.

  4. Jimmy Z says:

    For transit to be successful, there needs to be density, real or artificial. Places like Vancouver, San Fransisco and Portland, with successful transit systems, are dense because of physical or legal boundaries limiting supply and increasing demand. Places like Atlanta, LA, DC, Dallas, Houston, Denver and Chicago haven’t been able to keep up increased demand on the highway side, either out of choice or because of limited funding, so sprawl combined with congestion results in horrendous rush hours – transit of any type starts to look attractive, and virtual density is achieved with multiple, large park-and-ride lots. The transit agency doesn’t really worry about “the last mile” on the residential side, they focus on aggregating rider at nodes and shipping them to their jobs more quickly than commuting on the freeway system. Here, we have neither – transit is rarely faster than driving solo, our freeways are pretty good, and low land costs and no limits on sprawl in the surrounding counties, and losing more than half our population over the past 50 years in the city, means low density across the region, along with a pronounced preference for suburban-style office parks.

    Until we can get past the issues that drive people out of or scare them away from the city (crime, schools, racism, etc.), and the every-man-for-themselves view of planning in the suburbs, we’re just going to be seeing more of the same. Our biggest concentrated job base isn’t downtown, it’s around the BJC campus at Kingswhighway & I-64. The number of jobs in downtown Clayton isn’t much different than in downtown STL. And then there are all those other jobs along I-64, I-270, and Page Avenue, in Earth City, in Illinois, in Chesterfield, and in St. Charles County. We don’t have one or six major employment nodes, we have dozens and dozens of minor ones! It’s going to take a major change in attitudes, that it IS worth it to pay more for density, that the hassles are really worth it, and that, unlike the old west, you don’t always need to have your own horse.

    100 years ago, when Oak Park and Evanston were first laid out, their affluent first buyers didn’t have multiple, if any, motor vehicles. Here, 60 years ago, when both our population and our streetcar system was at its peak, few families had more than one automobile. These days, rich or poor, most every driver, licensed or not, has easy access to some kind of car or truck. Transit is fighting an uphill battle on the simple convenience side – it’s certainly better than walking, but it’s sure not as convenient as driving yourself. Yeah, we could build a streetcar line along Grand, from border to border, for example, but will it it attract significantly more riders than the existing bus? I doubt it. “Returning to such makes sense both functionally and economically.” IF it resulted in MUCH higher densities/new private investment, perhaps. But I take a much more pragmatic view – we need to fill our vacant and underutilized structures first (which will increase densities at lower costs than building new), then we can look at even higher densities through major new public investments.

  5. Angelo says:

    Saint Louis does have light-rail suburbs….that was how most of South City was designed. I should, given the original plan, be able to hop on a couple of trolleys and make it to downtown….or any major city center.

    The buses really aren’t efficient for people who just wanna get to the major city hubs. The Metrolink is pretty useful, but it is still too limited.

    I still prefer to use a combination of buses the light-rail to get to Saint Charles than a car; it’s far safer, cheaper in the long-run, and just as fast (as long as you time it right).

  6. goat314 says:

    despite what many naysayers have to preach the reintroduction of rail transit to the St. Louis region has been nothing less than a success. The biggest failure isn’t the implementation, in fact Metro had one of the best ran transit agencies in the country despite the lack of real, consistent revenue and support form the region and state. It really is a failure of leadership, division, and lack of vision that has kept this from being the biggest light rail success story in the country. Its just crazy to see other cities and areas pouring ridiculous amounts of money into transit and getting shitty ridership and St. Louis/Missouri just craps on mass transit and we had one of the most successful light rail transit systems in the country. Could you imagine if we put Portland, Dallas, Denver type money into our system. We would be up there with the big boys and our urban renaissance would be happening at an insanely fast rate.

  7. Tim Ekren says:

    I definitely think we need kill this idea of a massive a metrolink expansion. We can start by tabling the North South Line. However, I still think that a moderate metrolink expansion in the county is reasonable and is one of the better infrastructure options for development inside the I-270 belt. Cross county is here and its expsansion into south can be argued as a reseanable replacement for not having I-170 extended south of I-64 as well as encouraging a very strong office/mixed transit corridor in the county. It might happen if Richmond Heights, Brentwood & Maplewood would quit competing for sales tax revenue from the next box store and maybe tear one or two down in favore of a shared zoning/development plan. As well, the Daniel Boone extension would tie in a county jobs corridor along Page Ave with the other job centers on the current metrolink system (CBD, Wash U, BJC, Downtown, Airport & Scotts Air Force Base). Beyond these expansion, metrolink gets to be a very expensive transit alternative for the region. Express bus services is very cost effective and flexible transit option for a big part of this region.

    Steve, I believe your post is right on for the area’s urban core transit needs, It would be nice to start with a real look at a Grand Ave street car line by the time they start rebuilding Grand Ave viaduct & the metrolink station underneath. You have major cultural institutions, a major university, and a beautiful city park just far enough away to convince people not to walk but close enough for a preference of transit over a car. Instead, we get Delmar trolley. Actually, I wished Joe would take his trolley downtown. Talk about possibilities when you start thinking in terms of connecting Washington Ave loft district/City Museum, Casino/Lacledes Landing/Arch grounds, Kiel/Scottrade Center/Union Station, Busch Stadium and the surrounding hotels with a loop. Maybe the loop could incorporate part of the north south line as a future consideration.

    We would probably get strong support within the I-270 corridor for a transit development district if we start targeting specific transit solutions working off the metrolink spine that better fit the immediate area or needs.

  8. James R says:

    I think Joe’s trolley vision is probably about as grand as he can handle. From all I’ve seen, he’s been close to a one man show on this and to expand it to a cross city line would require many more champions, and especially one with a whole bathtub full of political juice.

    The problem is that Metrolink is trying to be ‘transit’ – meaning getting the west suburbanites to drive to the lot/garage adjacent to the station then take the train in to work or the ball game, and providing a way for the poor (and non car owning) suburban population to move around.

    A trolley system is much more a quality of life issue and is about creating linkages and therefore doesn’t do enough to serve the two targeted ‘transit’ populations. The argument will be that it is quaint and touristy but doesn’t really help people move around. But dammit, it would create places where people actually want to be.

    I seriously can not imagine anything better for the city than the two trolley lines discussed here- one connecting downtown to the Loop and one running from at the very least Grand South Grand to Grand Center. Well, maybe getting rid of Gateway One and the Arch Garage and using the rubble from both to fill the depressed section – but they are really close.

    And think about how well those two lines would levarage the existing Metrolink – especially if you added a spur, similar to Joe’s design but expanded, that looped through Forest Park. Hell, you’d get people riding that just to take a ride around the park.

    Instead you get the North/South study that only serves the ‘transit’ populations I described above, or the hushed rumours (and what the smart money is riding on) about a line to Westport to try and salvage that decaying hulk.

  9. GMichaud says:

    I am looking for my old St. Louis trolley map from 1954 or so. The idea of good urban planning and design is anathema in the last decades of life in St. Louis.
    The graceful connection of transportation and urban design to create a livable, walkable city is the result of a universal approach. It is impossible to talk of successful transportation without talking about how the city itself should be shaped.

    While Portland makes laws to prevent sprawl, is it possible to build a beautiful city that attracts residents and business?

    The trolley is certainly an important tool. Glad to see it gets recognition here.

  10. Les says:

    Steve, you have effectively answered the one question that I am asked more than any other about MetroLink. If you talk to the planners in Chicago, they would tell you that they would never run rail down the center of a highway again. Highways are built to move vehicles and light rail moves people — people who become pedestrians when they leave the train. Our hope is to develop transit-oriented communities around stops — a vision that one day will be achieved. That wouldn’t be possible if the train ran in the middle of a noisy, polluted and pedestrian hostile right-of way of a major highway. Light rail is about community. Highways are about moving autos as fast and safely as possible. Despite the seeming logic of embedding multiple transportation modes in a single conduit, it really doesn’t make any sense when you think about it.

  11. john says:

    ^Local attitudes is why our transportation systems, housing sprawl, and commuting patterns are so outdated and unsustainable. Efficient transportation is modal not divisive like the local governmental structure. The failure to integrate inexpensive, efficient, healthier and more reliable choices like cycling and walking is just one example of many on why we allow highways to destroy neighborhoods and connectivity. The Metro system ignores this valuable infrastructure (no BRT here!) and instead builds an inefficient, poorly laid out, poorly designed Extension, over budget and under-utilized. That’s success?

    Divisiveness as an objective: “Our hope is to develop transit-oriented communities around stops”. Too late as the infrastructure (homes, businesses, shops) are already in place. Try walking to Trader Joes from the Brentwood stop on the Extension. Or try walking from a home on Everett to Dierbergs (only 500 feet) but the Extension was built without an adjoining path and therefore a round trip walk of 3.7 miles. Many more examples if you do your research… that’s success StL style!

  12. Aaron says:

    We need to learn a few lessons from the Cross County extension. One is about creating TOD communities: more of the residents and business owners must really want TOD before we decide to build MetroLink stations for the purpose of creating TOD. Especially when the future fate of the system is at stake within a short time frame from the completion of the new extension and we don’t have time to wait for TOD success in the next generation.

    Two of the biggest selling points of the Cross County extension were tying in the region’s second biggest CBD and major county retail destinations with existing origins/destinations on MetroLink. Look at what we have now: two underperforming Clayton stations that are pushed to the very perimeter of the CBD, and stops at major retail and entertainment destinations where the owners are ambivalent about and even resent public transit: (Galleria, Deirberg’s, Maplewood Commons, even Tropicana Bowl). Thankfully transit was embraced by The Boulevard and the Best Buy development, perhaps the only cross county TOD so far.

    Too many commercial and residential property owners adjacent to the stations didn’t want the stops to be closer to their doorstep. They were leery of the whole idea, but we spent 600 million in local money to build it anyway with a long term view that property owners would warm up to it, and that the transit stations will out last the existing auto-centric retail developments. It may happen yet, but right now it doesn’t look good.

    The Saint Louis region would do well to examine what failed with this planning and public involvement process and not repeat the same mistakes on the next extension. Refuse to build it if it’s not done right for TOD.

  13. Jimmy Z says:

    We also need to decide if any future extensions of Metrolink will primarily serve suburban commuters or be (optimistically) economic development tools. If the goal is to move commuters, the fewer stations the better – it would speed things up. If the goal is economic development, it’s going to take a lot more thought and a lot more community buy-in, including the private development community. For example, would it have made more sense to have the Sunnen Station closer to the Deer Creek Center? What can be done to get something, anything going in Wellston? Or should that station be eliminated completely? And one big reason “what failed with this planning and public involvement process” is that the larger, common public was essentially ignored, and the special interests took control of the process!

  14. john says:

    Special interests took control of the project after Salci was hired… one of the reasons I wasn’t one of his cheerleaders. The original Clayton station was on Hanley Rd at FoPa Expy and Metro had MSD replace the sewer lines there in 2000-1. Public meetings were held on what locals wanted in the station design (even the paint colors). The Richmond Heights station was to be on Clayton Rd and 170 (Metro bought the building there and tore it down). The resulting station is surrounded by fences on three sides and the green space (grass and old growth trees) have been replaced with a asphalt parking lot.

    The Hanley Station would have been great in connecting a north-south bus service. Another major opportunity cost has led to higher operating costs for MetroLink. The Clayton Rd Station would serve a east-west bus route. Now to serve the east side of the misplaced RH Station, buses have to spend additional time traveling roundtrip on Brentwood Blvd and Galleria Pkwy. There is now no direct service for the western area on Clayton Rd from the RH Station.
    – –
    In the end both stations were changed (causing more cost overruns) and so the idea of an integrated, multi-modal design was destroyed. These are obvious examples of mismanagement and there are many others. These decisions have led to major opportunity costs to the region and to higher operating costs for MetroLink.

  15. Jimmy Z says:

    I just got back from spending another great family weekend in Chicago. I haven’t been back there in a couple of years, and it’s AMAZING how much cycling has caught on, both in the urban yuppie neighborhoods that now ring the Loop and in the historic transit suburbs, like Oak Park. Pondering why, I can come up with two explanations. One, over the last forty-plus years, NO lanes have been added to the freeways that serve the Loop. And two, the combination of constant highway congestion (even on the weekends), high land prices around the Loop and suburban sprawl that continues ever outward, have all combined to create a critical mass where rail transit and/or commuting by bicycle is significantly quicker and probably cheaper. Unfortunately, until that happens here, we’re going to continue in our highly autocentric ways . . .

  16. john says:

    Want a better, integrated, public supported multi-modal transportation system? In Japan, the “demotorization” process is also driven by cost factors. Owning and driving a car can cost up to $500 per month in Japan, including parking fees, car insurance, toll roads and various taxes. On a $17,000 car, taxes in Japan are 4.1 times higher than in the United States. “Automobiles used to represent a symbol of our status, a Western, modern lifestyle that we aspired for,” says Kitamura. For today’s young people, he argues, “such thinking is completely gone.” http://www.newsweek.com/id/112735
    – –
    The New 64, free parking, low auto taxes, low gasoline taxes, no tolls, poor Metro management, few bike paths, etc. are all designed to support the unsustainable in the Lou region.

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