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Readers: Fixed-Rail Best Way To Improve Public Transit In North & South St. Louis

For the last couple of months I’ve posted development opportunities along the proposed St. Louis Streetcar.  Like our 20 year-old light rail line, this streetcar would also serve the central corridor.  I live in the CC now, and I did when I first moved to St. Louis, but I lived in north or south St. Louis for 16 of my nearly 23 years in St. Louis. I lived in north St. Louis when MetroLink opened in 1993, and south St. Louis when the Shrewsbury extension opened.  I rarely used MetroLink during those years, mostly just the occasional trip to/from the airport.

The bus route number is shown on the front left followed by the the final destination.
The #70 MetroBus heading northbound

Though I’ll enjoy the modern streetcar line, if it happens, I know it must be expanded beyond the central corridor into north & south St. Louis, within a few years time. Many readers seemed to agree based on the results of the poll last week.

Nearly half (48.98%) picked answers involving fixed rail, while 45.3% picked answers running through city neighborhoods.

Q: Best way to improve public transit in North & South St. Louis? Pick up to 3

  1. In-street modern streetcar lines serving city neighborhoods 70 [28.57%]
  2. In-street light rail lines running through the city to connect to the county 50 [20.41%]
  3. Bus rapid transit (BRT) lines serving city neighborhoods 41 [16.73%]
  4. Run existing buses more frequently 41 [16.73%]
  5. Bigger articulated buses for the busiest routes 24 [9.8%]
  6. Reduce/eliminate fares 7 [2.86%]
  7. Buses that go from diesel in the county to electric via overhead wires in the city 6 [2.45%]
  8. Nothing, doesn’t need improving 3 [1.22%]
  9. Other: 3 [1.22%]

I’m not a fan of running in-street light rail through the city to reach park & ride lots in St. Louis County. The stops would be spaced so far apart it wouldn’t do much to help city residents, unless you happened to live around one of the few stations. Sorry, I don’t view north & south St. Louis as places county residents should have to get through quickly to reach a game downtown. Transit infrastructure should serve the meeds of the neighborhood it runs through.

A few years ago a friend suggested we run MetroLink down south of Busch Stadium, through the Soulard neighborhood. Really? You want light rail in a dense old neighborhood? Low-floor light rail vehicles w/platforms would consume much of the 12th Street right-of-way, our current high-floor vehicles would require more room. Side streets would need to be cut off to reduce the number of crossing points. In short, light rail in neighborhoods would be a disaster.

Modern streetcars, or decked out BRT (bus rapid transit) is the way to better serve city neighborhoods.

— Steve Patterson

  • Eric

    There is no intrinsic difference between light rail and modern streetcars. A train is a train is a train. If it is mostly separate from other traffic, and has widely spaced stops, it will be fast. If not, it will be slow.

    When you say “modern streetcar” I assume you mean a train that travels in regular car lanes and stops on every city block. Thus, extremely slow. Such a train is useful for hipsters who want to get from their loft to the coffee shop three blocks away. It’s pretty useless for a lower income worker who needs to get from North City to a retail job in Loughborough Commons and can’t afford to spend two hours traveling in each direction every day. (And those are the vast majority of city transit users.) To serve the city effectively, you need separate lanes and stops every 400-500 meters, no closer. I guess you would call this “light rail”. However, it is different from light rail in the county, which has to cover a bigger area, so the stops are a whole mile apart on average, and there are bridges and tunnels to bypass intersections.

    BRT is really no different from trains. If it has separate lanes and infrequent stops and quick boarding (i.e. pay before boarding like on light rail), it will be fast and useful. If not, it won’t. It is cheaper to install than light rail. It’s worse than light rail at handling high passenger numbers, but no St Louis corridor, not even Grand, has enough riders for that to be a problem.

    So in short, the best approach is probably some form of BRT. More distant stops, quicker fare collection, traffic signal priority, and (depending on funding) separate lanes. This is pretty cheap so it could be implemented on many corridors – Grand, Jefferson, Kingshighway, Gravois, Natural Bridge, MLK…

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      Agreed, low floor modern streetcars and low-floor light rail have few differences — the number of stops being the primary difference. Modern streetcars differ from vintage/reproduction trolleys, they stop more frequently than light rail but less frequently than a regular bus line, roughly the same as you’d stop a BRT line.

      • JZ71

        While articulated buses (favored for BRT), “low floor modern streetcars and low-floor light rail [all appear to] have few differences” to the regular, non-transit-wonk user, there are technical differences on the engineering and operational side. As for “the number of stops being the primary difference”, no, that is simply not true! All three modes, along with regular buses, can and do stop very frequently and/or very infrequently, in different cities and along different routes, depending on demand and design decisions, oftentimes driven by political issues. The biggest differences usually involve overall route length – the longer the route, the further apart any stops tend to be outside of any CBD’s, since increasing the number of stops degrades overall travel times on longer routes. Adding 3 or 5 minutes to go a couple of miles is no big deal; adding 30 or 45 minutes to go 10 or 15 miles IS! It’s a balancing act (short trips vs longer trips), and the type of vehicle only comes into play when you get into heavy, commuter rail, where it takes longer to get up to speed, thus you don’t want to stop as often. The only reason that modern streetcars “stop more frequently than light rail but less frequently than a regular bus line” is their typical route length, similar to or shorter than a typical local bus route.

        • Eric

          Commuter rail is different because it is usually diesel powered and runs on freight lines. It must have few stops (diesel acceleration is slow), it must usually be infrequent (so freight trains can run on the same line), so it is a good fit for suburban areas where people drive to the stop, where rail lines already exist so no investment is necessary.

          As for all other modes you mentioned – yes, adding an extra stop or two in high-density areas is fine, just don’t overdo it. But if you want to serve the maximum number of riders, frequent stops along the whole length of the route are a horrible idea.

        • Eric

          Commuter rail is different because it is usually diesel powered and runs on freight lines. It must have few stops (diesel acceleration is slow), it must usually be infrequent (so freight trains can run on the same line), so it is a good fit for suburban areas where people drive to the stop, where rail lines already exist so no investment is necessary.

          As for all other modes you mentioned – yes, adding an extra stop or two in high-density areas is fine, just don’t overdo it. But if you want to serve the maximum number of riders, frequent stops along the whole length of the route are a horrible idea.

      • JZ71

        While articulated buses (favored for BRT), “low floor modern streetcars and low-floor light rail [all appear to] have few differences” to the regular, non-transit-wonk user, there are technical differences on the engineering and operational side. As for “the number of stops being the primary difference”, no, that is simply not true! All three modes, along with regular buses, can and do stop very frequently and/or very infrequently, in different cities and along different routes, depending on demand and design decisions, oftentimes driven by political issues. The biggest differences usually involve overall route length – the longer the route, the further apart any stops tend to be outside of any CBD’s, since increasing the number of stops degrades overall travel times on longer routes. Adding 3 or 5 minutes to go a couple of miles is no big deal; adding 30 or 45 minutes to go 10 or 15 miles IS! It’s a balancing act (short trips vs longer trips), and the type of vehicle only comes into play when you get into heavy, commuter rail, where it takes longer to get up to speed, thus you don’t want to stop as often. The only reason that modern streetcars “stop more frequently than light rail but less frequently than a regular bus line” is their typical route length, similar to or shorter than a typical local bus route.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      Agreed, low floor modern streetcars and low-floor light rail have few differences — the number of stops being the primary difference. Modern streetcars differ from vintage/reproduction trolleys, they stop more frequently than light rail but less frequently than a regular bus line, roughly the same as you’d stop a BRT line.

  • JZ71

    Any discussion about transit needs to include how to pay for it. The reason we see so many buses (and so few rail vehicles) is simple economics – it costs far less to put a bus on the street than it does to build a rail line, and if demand does not meet projections or expectations, it is far easier to redeploy a bus to a different (and hopefully more productive) route. I get that rail implies permanence, and that can help leverage development, but we need to remember that the number one priority of any transit SYSTEM is to give people viable options to multiple destinations, not just one great solution for just one route. And while I agree that “Modern streetcars, or decked out BRT (bus rapid transit)” are two ways “to better serve city neighborhoods”, increasing frequency with traditional buses with better (timed) transfers are also good (better?) ways to spend the same amount of money while better serving the needs of many riders – for regular riders, the quicker you can get from point A to point B, using whatever combination of vehicles is available, is usually the biggest priority.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    My “Other” selection was to use the De Soto right-of-way to run a Metrolink from Grand south to River Des Peres (Loughborough Commons could be the terminus, and a park-and-ride). A local BRT running in the center lanes of the oversized Florissant Ave. up to the City’s northern border is probably the best first effort for the Northside.

    The Southside route is already there. Among the neighborhoods easily connected by the 8-9 mile route: Forest Park Southeast, The Hill, Tower Grove South, Bevo/Little Bosnia, Dutchtown, Carondelet, Patch, Boulevard Heights. The attractions: Missouri Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park, Carondelet Park, River City Casino (a short shuttle ride from the terminus). The main streets: Grand, Morganford, Gravois, Chippewa, Kingshighway, Vandeventer, Loughborough.

    It’s unobtrusive and built into an already grade-separated right-of-way. While it exists more so on the edges of those neighborhoods, it’s close enough to be easily-accessible and regularly-utilized. There’s room to grow the neighborhoods toward the Metrolink and better connect the areas on each side. Taking a quick car tour of the route’s main station stops, it all lines up: Popular roadways with existing bus lines to connect, commercial street-level activity, a healthy mix of single-family/mutli-tenant buildings, and of course ample TOD opportunity.

    The problem, as mentioned by some in my comments section when I tackled the idea on my site (“South City, Meet Metrolink…”), is that the De Soto right of way has recently seen increased use by Union Pacific. Years ago, not so much — and that was probably the time for the City to propose a full purchase or land-swap. It seems, though, that this would the best way to effectively access the highest number of Southside neighborhoods, with very limited demolition or infrastructure costs.

    I included my pie-in-the-sky “given my d’ruthers” map below, which shows what a Southside system could look like if fully built out. The De Soto line is obviously the thick yellow line with the station stops listed. Those De Soto line stops with orange dots are potential future/alternate stops, or, alternatively, ones that would be accessible only by a “local” line versus the slightly quicker “downtown” line.

    As I said, this full map is pie-in-the-sky, with an express line bordering I-55 and a whopping three streetcar lines traveling south on Broadway, Grand AND Gravois. All that is years (centuries?) off, but a smart, effective first step would be working/dealing with Union Pacific to activate the De Soto route.

    Link to YASTLBlog post: http://yastlblog.com/2012/06/27/south-city-meet-metrolink-a-no-brainer-plan-for-expansion/

    Dream big, right?!

    • Eric

      The De Soto right-of-way is not really available, in that they still run freight trains there, US railroads are extremely reluctant to sell ROW at any cost, and a light rail line would have to be built from scratch at a significant distance from the freight tracks. Also, the route is very windy, and mostly goes through deserted industrial areas while missing all the travel destinations in South City. So despite appearances, it is not actually a good route to use.

      The street car lines are better, to be effective they would need separate lanes though.

      • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

        You’re right — the path is toowindy and the right-of-way too narrow to accommodate both UP tracks and a double-line Metrolink. If this vision were to happen, and were to avoid costly grading/demolition, it’d likely need to have light-rail as its sole use. Years ago, as I said, when the line was in less frequent use by Union Pacific (and Amtrak), would have been the perfect time for the City and Metro to attempt a deal for the right-of-way.

        Even now though, some creative negotiating — which would likely include the City releasing some of its property adjacent to UP’s river-running Lesperance line for its expansion — could place the De Soto stretch under the City’s/Metro’s full ownership or long-term lease.

        But I disagree (obviously) that it isn’t a good route. While it historically has been an industrial route and, by that fact alone, borders many industrial plots, it’s station stops would — for the most part — be decently-connected to well-traveled streets and heavily-populated neighborhoods. No, you won’t be able to step out your door, turn the corner and jump on the train, but that’s really not the current purpose of Metrolink.

        [I would be able to accept the notion of going subterranean under Morganford, Tower Grove Park and Tower Grove Ave. to arrive at Vandeventer/FPSE and reconnect up to Grand. It’d remove that large westward hump of the line, reduce trackage, and streamline the system. But then you lose Kingshighway and The Hill…]

        The main goal of the first (okay, technically second) Southside expansion should be to activate the residents of what are the City’s densest, most-preserved neighborhoods. Not for sight-seeing stops nor as an express/bypass opportunity, but as a connector, from the southern tip to the central belt, that can encourage growth and development of those neighborhoods up to and around the stations.

        This, I feel, is the best way to do that. If (and it’s a monumental ‘if,’ I know), the City and Metro could effort to work something out with Union Pacific.

        • dempster holland

          I agree with yourcomments and would add several considerations, A significant portion of
          light rail users use the bus as part of their trip. The UP right of way through south st
          but with tlouis could have stations at many streets with bus lines: Grand, Arsenel, Kingsjighway, morganford, chuippewa, Loughborough etc The idea of the city trading land to
          make the UP south riverfront line more workable certainly merits consideration. Transit
          planners in st louis are too prone to give up easily when faced with difficult problems.
          Thus the planners dropped the UP s side route several years ago without trying to solve
          the reluctance of UP. The first metrolink line farced similar problems with norfolk western
          but these could be worked out. The route is somewhat circuitous but with the speed of light
          rail in its own right of way, that is a somewhat minimal problem Finally, a south side
          route could then be extended into south county along an abandoned right of way

          • dempster holland

            A further consideration as to securing use of the Union Pacific right of way for light rail:
            Consider that the total cost of the shrewsbury edxtension was about $600 million and
            that about $100 million of that was used for the subway from Skinker to Clayton to
            overcome neighborhood opposition. Apply that lesson to the south st louis light rail
            and then agree to pay Union pacific $50 million for its right of way. UP could then take
            part of that $50 million to offset the cost of rerouting its trains elsewhere in the st Louis
            area (eg, along the south riverfront and then into Illinois.) These numbers are illustrative
            only but the principle is the same: part of the cost of a s side light rail is the cost of
            satisfying UP. At the least, transit planners should explore this option before spending
            money on their current preferred s side route along jefferson, which is nothing more than
            a glorified streetcar

          • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

            We already have lots of right-of-way in the form of excessively wide streets! $50 million would build a lot of streetcar, something our streets were made for.

          • dempster holland

            Streetcars running on public streets face the delays caused by cross traffic on inter-
            secting streets. Light rail on its own right of way, without the problem of intersecting
            streets, is therefore much faster. Travel time is probably the major determinent of whether
            persons use public transit. A system of light rail routes serving various parts of the metro=
            politan area is essential to a well used public transit system. The fast light rail ride, even if
            only part of a total transit trip, can make the difference in attracting people to public transit

          • dempster holland

            The delmar loop trolley costs $44 million for about 2.3 miles. Even paying a hypothetical
            50 million to UP would therefore build about 2.5 miles of streetcars, hardly “a lot” This, of
            course, is not the only cost of a s side light rail line, but acquiring a nearly 9 mile ex-
            clusive right of way would obvviously be worth it Remember that this would be a one-time
            cost==once the right of way is qcquired, it would be there forever.

    • Eric

      The De Soto right-of-way is not really available, in that they still run freight trains there, US railroads are extremely reluctant to sell ROW at any cost, and a light rail line would have to be built from scratch at a significant distance from the freight tracks. Also, the route is very windy, and mostly goes through deserted industrial areas while missing all the travel destinations in South City. So despite appearances, it is not actually a good route to use.

      The street car lines are better, to be effective they would need separate lanes though.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    My “Other” selection was to use the De Soto right-of-way to run a Metrolink from Grand south to River Des Peres (Loughborough Commons could be the terminus, and a park-and-ride). A local BRT running in the center lanes of the oversized Florissant Ave. up to the City’s northern border is probably the best first effort for the Northside.

    The Southside route is already there. Among the neighborhoods easily connected by the 8-9 mile route: Forest Park Southeast, The Hill, Tower Grove South, Bevo/Little Bosnia, Dutchtown, Carondelet, Patch, Boulevard Heights. The attractions: Missouri Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park, Carondelet Park, River City Casino (a short shuttle ride from the terminus). The main streets: Grand, Morganford, Gravois, Chippewa, Kingshighway, Vandeventer, Loughborough.

    It’s unobtrusive and built into an already grade-separated right-of-way. While it exists more so on the edges of those neighborhoods, it’s close enough to be easily-accessible and regularly-utilized. There’s room to grow the neighborhoods toward the Metrolink and better connect the areas on each side. Taking a quick car tour of the route’s main station stops, it all lines up: Popular roadways with existing bus lines to connect, commercial street-level activity, a healthy mix of single-family/mutli-tenant buildings, and of course ample TOD opportunity.

    The problem, as mentioned by some in my comments section when I tackled the idea on my site (“South City, Meet Metrolink…”), is that the De Soto right of way has recently seen increased use by Union Pacific. Years ago, not so much — and that was probably the time for the City to propose a full purchase or land-swap. It seems, though, that this would the best way to effectively access the highest number of Southside neighborhoods, with very limited demolition or infrastructure costs.

    I included my pie-in-the-sky “given my d’ruthers” map below, which shows what a Southside system could look like if fully built out. The De Soto line is obviously the thick yellow line with the station stops listed. Those De Soto line stops with orange dots are potential future/alternate stops, or, alternatively, ones that would be accessible only by a “local” line versus the slightly quicker “downtown” line.

    As I said, this full map is pie-in-the-sky, with an express line bordering I-55 and a whopping three streetcar lines traveling south on Broadway, Grand AND Gravois. All that is years (centuries?) off, but a smart, effective first step would be working/dealing with Union Pacific to activate the De Soto route.

    Link to YASTLBlog post: http://yastlblog.com/2012/06/27/south-city-meet-metrolink-a-no-brainer-plan-for-expansion/

    Dream big, right?!

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