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After A Quarter Century, Still No Transit-Oriented Development At St. Louis’ Light Rail Stations

July 30, 2018 Featured, Public Transit, Transportation Comments Off on After A Quarter Century, Still No Transit-Oriented Development At St. Louis’ Light Rail Stations

Tomorrow is an important day for transit in St. Louis. At 10am Tuesday 7/31, 2018 a new MetroLink station will open along the original segment. The original light rail alignment opened 25 years earlier on July 31, 1993.

I was 26 and a huge supporter of rail transit, but I didn’t live or work anywhere near amy of the stations. At the time I lived in Old North St. Louis, a year later I bought a 2-family in Dutchtown. I was working in Rock Hill. MO.

MetroBus picking up riders at the Wellston MetroLink station– taking them to their final destination. The Wellston Station still lacks any transit-orioented development (TOD).

As a result of where I lived & worked, light rail wasn’t of any use to me. Switching jobs from Rock Hill to North St. Louis to Kirkwood didn’t change the lack of usefulness to me. However, I do recall a few times I’d catch the bud to take MetroLink to the airport for a rare trip.

East St Louis

It wasn’t until after moving downtown, and my February 2008 stroke a few months later, that I really began to use our public transit system on a regular basis. In the last decade I’ve traveled far more miles on MetroBus than via light rail.  Trips involving light rail almost always involve a MetroBus on one end, or both.

Crowds fill trains after fireworks on July 4th, 2012
MetroLink trains travel in a short tunnel under the historic Union Station train shed.

The St. Louis region only a little bit of heavy rail commuter lines to places like Jennings & Ferguson, Webster Groves, Kirkwood, etc. Light rail in the form of streetcars was the primary type of rail transit in the St, Louis region. A line even connoted Illinois into downtown St. Louis, coming in under Tucker Blvd.

Prior to WWII the bus began to replace streetcar lines — it was smoother and quieter than the old streetcars. The final streetcar line ended in May 1966. So when modern rail transit was being conceived in the 1980s the choices of right-of-way was limited. In 1989, as part of the work on light rail the City of St. Louis traded bridges with the Terminal Railroad Association. The TRA got ownership of the MacArthur Bridge and the city got the Eads Bridge and tunnel under downtown’s central business district.  Rail use of the Eads/tunnel ended in 1974 because then-new locomotives couldn’t navigate the bridge or tunnel. New light rail vehicles, however, would fit nicely. This was an excellent use of right-of-way and a great way to cross the Mississippi River.

Eads Bridge with the Admiral in early 1991
ABOVE: The view to the west of the Sunnen MetroLink station in Maplewood is radically different now, just bare earth.

An old freight corridor was acquired that would take the original alignment from downtown St. Louis through numerous municipalities in St. Louis County toward the airport. On opening day trains didn’t reach the airport terminals, it stopped at the Hanley Station. The main terminal was opened soon after. The East Terminal (#2) station came years later.

The only structure at North Hanley is a parking garage, added years after the station opened.

Extensions were made in St. Clair County, IL and in 2006 a Missouri extension to Shrewsbury via Clayton.

The Shrewsbury MetroLink station opened with the blue line extension on August 26, 2006.

The Blue Line to Shrewsbury was costly as many residents along the alignment wanted the trains underground rather than at grade. The line was built to continue South from Shrewsbury, but nearly 12 years later that seems like a non-starter.

In the 25 years since the original line (Red) opened, and nearly 12 years since the Shrewsbury line (Blue) opened, we’ve not seen any transit-oriented development around the stations. We’ve had some transit-adjacent development, but mostly nothing. This is because smart land use planning wasn’t implemented at each station prior to construction. Development around the Maplewood station on the Blue line has been a lot of new car dealerships.

Tomorrow morning service will begin at the new CORTEX station located between Grand and Central West End (BJC). The CORTEX district tries to market itself as pedestrian-friendly. Compared to most of the St. Louis region, it’s a pedestrian’s paradise. For this pedestrian, however, it’s a typical mediocre attempt at best. Sidewalks are narrow, surface parking lots face rail line, the original CORTEX building still lacks an ADA-compliant accessible route. Ribbon cutting for the new station begins at 10am, I’ll be there, weather permitting.

The new station can be tracked from Boyle Ave on the West, or Sarah Street on the East end, though it’s closer to Boyle. Those using Boyle from the North or South will have no problems tomorrow. Same for those using Sarah from the North. As of Thursday last week, those trying to enter/exit the station from/to South Sarah will have ro use the street.

You’d think finishing sidewalks to/from a transit station would be important, but not in St. Louis
A wide sidewalk runs along the North side of the tracks between Sarah & Boyle, looking West from Sarah Street.
An Eastbound train is seen passing by the station last week.

We’ve invested a lot in light rail, but we’ve not always been smart about it. We’ve not leveraged it to created dense walkable nodes around stations. Going back after the fact is proving just as hard, if not harder, than if it had been done 25 years ago.

— Steve Patterson

 

Proposed Rail Transit Through Downtown, An Alternative To Delmar

July 16, 2018 Featured, Public Transit, Transportation Comments Off on Proposed Rail Transit Through Downtown, An Alternative To Delmar

Last week I promised an alternative to the proposed alignment for the proposed northside-southside light rail study. At the time I thought my alternative would work only with the Cass option, but it could work with the North Florissant alignment. First, a look at the overall plan at this point.

The overall route map

Now let’s examine the downtown inset from the upper right.

From the South the line comes North on 14th from Chouteau, East on Clark. 9th Street would be used for northbound vehicles, 10yth Street for Southbound. All would use Convention Plaza (aka Delmar) to 14th Street. Stations would be at Clark, Pine, & Washington.

Now let’s examine the downtown inset from the upper right.

Two alternatives to 14th & Cass to Parnell (Jefferson) & Natural Bridge

In 2007-2008 the plan stayed on 14th rather than go East into the Central Business District. This new alignment through the CBD is much better for transit users and visibility that transit is an option.

This is looking West at Clark from 9th. The rail line would come toward us on Clark then turn North on 9th (our right)
Now we’re looking North on 9th, the Stadium West garage is on the right
Looking North on 9th from Walnut — there’s plenty of height for the rail vehicles, overhead wires, etc
Since opening in 2009 Citygarden has unofficially closed 9th Street. Would rail be allowed but not other vehicles?
The reason they closed 9th is because they didn’t figure out how to let pedestrians using the “hallway” to know when it was safe to cross 9th
At 10th Street the “hallway” needs to be continued into the next block, along with a system of pedestrian signals.
Looking West at Convention Plaza, formerly Delmar, from 9th Street.

My question was why rush to get to 14th Street? Why not go further North on 9th/10th before heading West? It’s likely too late for a change since they plan to submit to East-West Gateway, our MPO, late next month. Still, I took a look at alternatives to Delmar to reach 14th from 9th/10th.

The next block North of Delmar is MLK Dr
St. Louis loves to give away public property, is MLK between 10th-11th is a narrow private service drive. MLK was also vacated West of 11th
Cole is a nice wide option, but West of Tucker you can see it narrows considerably.

With MLK & Cole ruled out that leaves only one other option: Cass Ave. I’ve written before about 9th & 10th through the Columbus Square neighborhood being excessively wide one-way streets — from when they served as long on/off streets for I-70. Since the bridge construction changed traffic patterns, 9th/10th are way too wide and little used. Running the rail lines on 9th/10th through the center of this neighborhood would help connect it to downtown, partially making up for the convention center (1977) and dome (1993) closing access via 6th/7th/8th.

Looking South at 9th from Cass
Commercial storefront building might become viable if served by rail transit rather than infrequent bus service.
Looking West on Cass from 9th
Looking North from Cass & Tucker. It would be nice if people driving intro St. Louis from this point saw rail transit on Cass
Lots of vacant land at this important intersection, development could be served by rail transit,,
Looking West on Cass from Tucker,
The long-vacant Cass Bank at 13h & Cass might get developed if rail t=ran down Cass
14th Street sidewalks near Cass are horrible, booked in many places or too natrrow due to encroachments like this.

I think more north city residents would be served by extending the line on 9th/19th to Cass. It could continue on Cass to Jefferson or use 13th or 14th to connect to North Florissant ,Connecting the development node at Cass & Tucker to downtown and to NGA West is important.

In the interest of full disclosure, by the end of this year my husband and I will very likely be new residents of the Columbus Square neighborhood, moving from our loft in Downtown West to a smaller place.More on that later. Still, I’ve been photographing & writing about the area for years.

It’s probably too late to consider 9th.10th to Cass, but I had to share it.

— Steve Patterson

 

Readers Split On Northside Light Rail Alignment

July 11, 2018 Featured, Public Transit Comments Off on Readers Split On Northside Light Rail Alignment

In the recent non-scientiifc Sunday Poll readers were split on the twi competing alignments that’ll be recommended to East Wes. Planning approved a decade ago was to use 14th, North Florissant, and Natural Bridge. Since then a big chunk of the St. Louis Place neighborhood was razed for the new West headquarters of the National Geospatial Agency (NGA West), now under construction. So an alternative is to use Cars & Jefferson avenues to serve NGA West’s workforce.

The red represents North Florissant alignment, green the Cars/Jefferson alignment

Here are the results:

Q: Which of the two alternatives for the Northside light rail alignment do you prefer:

  • Unsure/no answer 9 [36%]
  • Florissant Ave 9 [36%]
  • Cass Ave 7 [28%]

The results are lower than typical weeks, and some selected Unsure/no answer because they oppose investing in additional rail transit — even though taxpayers approved taxes to build additional rail to serve North & South St. Louis.

Advantages of Florissant Ave alignment:

  • Serves 3 neighborhoods: Carr Square, St. Louis Place, & Old North St. Louis
  • Taking transit to/from Crown Candy would be easier than now
  • No 90-degree turns to slow down speeds

Advantages of Cars Ave alignment

  • Serves 2 neighborhoods: Carr Square & St. Louis Place
  • Serves more of Jeff Vanderlou neighborhood than Florissant Ave alignment
  • Serves NGA West
  • Could spur development of long-vacant Pruitt-Igoe site

It’s tough picking a favorite.  Would more NGA workers use transit if it stopped right out front? Would think significantly reduce auto traffic to/from NGA?

On Monday I’ll propose an alternative to the Case Ave alignment.

— Steve Patterson.

 

First To Test Metro’s Reduced Fare Gateway Card

July 9, 2018 Featured, Public Transit Comments Off on First To Test Metro’s Reduced Fare Gateway Card

In February 2014, on a trip to Chicago, I used my first contactless transit card. It took a few times to get used to it but it was far easier than paying cash and deciding if I needed ro pay up front for a 2-hour transfer. If I bought a transfer, I had to keep track of it. With a contactless card there’s no problem paying the bus fare while wearing gloves. No fumbling with bills & coins. Just tap & go. My post from February 2014: Contactless Transit Smart Cards. I’d already contacted Metro St. Louis about being a reduced fare tester.

Metro was supposed to have such a system in place in St. Louis by then, but other cities, including Chicago, experienced huge problems when launching their contactless cards.  Other delays happened tooo, but Metro has been cautiously slow.

From April:

Metro has been working on the smart card system for more than eight years.

It’s part of a $31 million project that also included replacing fareboxes on all 400 of Metro’s buses, replacing or modifying ticket vending machines and validators and technical upgrades.

Metro in 2011 had said the card system would be launched by 2013. Later the targeted launch date was changed to 2015. That also wasn’t met.
Officials blamed the delays on the complexity of integrating disparate systems on moving buses and trains and with bus fareboxes. (Post-Dispatch)

I’ve been pretty patient as the months & years passed by. In November 2015 I applied for a reduced fare Ventra card for use in Chicago. It arrived in the mail the next month, prompt9ing me to write Reduced Fare Smart Card For Chicago, Still Waiting On St. Louis.

In late 2017 I saw Metro’s now-retired Executive Director, Ray Friem, at an event at North Hanley.  He explained the many pages of problems they’ve worked through and the few that remained. One issue was different vendors for bus fareboxes  and a different one for MetroLink fare gates.

Earlier this year testing was opened up from a limited number of riders to sort of a public beta test — but still only full fare. I was getting inpatient. In March Friem promised me I’d be the first reduced fare tester. He was right, 3 months later I got my card!

Standard fare cards are blue (top), reduced fare cards are red.
The back of my husband’s full fare card includes tow card number and where to call Metro. The back of my card includes my name & photo as well as card number — only the person assigned the card can use a reduced fare card, I’ve blurred both card numbers.

I’ve now used the card 7 times — on both MetroBus and MetroLink (Light rail). My very first time using the card was on a #10 bus as I headed to an appointment with an ophthalmologist. It didn’t work. I tapped again, still didn’t work. The 3rd time it didn’t work the bus driver indicated to just wheel back to my spot so she could get going. I emailed the time, bus route, and bus numbers to the person at Metro I’d been working with for months to get this card.

I managed to board the one bus, out of 400, that had a defective reader. Since then it has worked flawlessly, including a bus to MetroLink transfer last week!  As these cards are still in testing mode, all the bells & whistles aren’t yet up & running. I can’t open an app on my phone to check transactions, balance remaining, or add funds. Can’t logon from my home computer either. I can check the by calling the number on the back of the card; I can also check the balance or add funds by visiting the Metro Store at 8th & Pine, or at a Metro ticket machine.

The Metro Store in the Arcade Bldg, as seen from the SW corner of 8th & Pine
The machines at MetroBus centers & MetroLink stations have a reader you can tap your card to add funds, passes. or just check your balance.
This day I checked my balance, $10.75 matched my spreadsheet.

A Spreadsheet? Yes, I thought this was the best way to track my use and confirm the card is working.

Because no app is available, I created a spreadsheet on my phone using Apple’s Numbers app. This allows me to track the balance of my card.

This also helps me when I’m using Metro because the time will let me know the window in which I can use again at the transfer rate — exactly 2 hours.

The other way to check the balance is to call the number on the back of the card. At first I’d call and thought something wasn’t working. Unlike Chicago, the bus data isn’t sent in instantaneously. it’s downloaded from each bus when it returns each night. The call-in system may not know my card balance at any moment because of this, but the card itself knows. Don’t think you can exceed your balance because the bus hasn’t downloaded yet — it doesn’t work that way.

I’m told in a few months myself and others can begin testing the online portion. This will allow the autoload of passes or funds. I don’t use passes, but I love the idea of having it automatically charge a credit card I have on file whenever my balance reaches a minimum threshold.

Aside from the one faulty bus reader, everything has worked fine. I’m looking forward to helping test online functions. I’m really glad I no longer need to carry a coin purse with $1 bill & quarters! As a result of the new convenience I find myself using transit more than I would have if I still had ro use cash or 2-hour passes.

— Steve Patterson

 

Sunday Poll: Which Northside Light Rail Alternative Alignment Is Your Favorite?

July 8, 2018 Featured, Public Transit, Sunday Poll, Transportation Comments Off on Sunday Poll: Which Northside Light Rail Alternative Alignment Is Your Favorite?
Please vote below

Today’sSunday Poll is a little different than most, instead of agreeing or disagreeing with a statement you’ll be asked your favorite of two alternative routes for the Northside alignment of  proposed new light rail line.

Below is the email I received last week: about the Northside-Southside light rail project:

After a year and a half of data analysis, study and public feedback from over 60 presentations, meetings and open houses, the Northside-Southside Study team is releasing our recommended first phase project alignment for the City of St. Louis. We knew the best route for Northside-Southside should align with community investment strategies, serve area neighborhoods and residents, and provide pedestrian access to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) West campus.

Thus, the study team is recommending to the Board of East-West Gateway Council of Governments, our metropolitan planning organization, a $667 million street-running light rail investment that would run from Chippewa Boulevard in the South through downtown to Grand Boulevard in the North via one of the two North St. Louis alignment options. See map below.

  • The first phase would:Serve approximately47,000 people;
  • Carry an estimated 9,200 transit riders per day(4,200 of which are transit-dependent riders);
  • Access 65,000 jobs within a half-mile of the route; and
  • Spur possibly millions of dollars in economic development throughout our neighborhoods.

The North St. Louis Alignment
From public feedback gathered during the study, we knew any Northside-Southside route should align with community investment strategies and serve area neighborhoods and residents. Additionally on the Northside, the route should provide pedestrian access to the NGA West campus.

Both the Florissant Avenue and the newly proposed Cass Avenue routes align with community investment strategies, including the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. These options also serve the pedestrian entrances to the new NGA West campus, Carr Square and Old North neighborhoods. Although both options fulfill project needs and provide access to jobs, redevelopment and neighborhoods, the final north St. Louis route will be chosen during the next project phase, following additional technical work and community input. The map below shows the two Northside alignment options.

East-West Gateway Council of Governments Board to Receive Final Project Recommendation Later This Summer
The study team will submit its final project recommendation to the East-West Gateway Board at its August 29th board meeting. The next step is to secure funding for an environmental study and project development, expected to take place during the environmental review process. At this time, a preferred alignment through North St. Louis will be chosen.

Overall, we have seen and heard great community support for this project. We know it will transform the City of St. Louis and St. Louis’ regional public transit system.

So the study team is recommending two a;ltermatoves North of downtown. Lots of pros & cons to each. The number of stations is the same for each. Either way Carr Square and what’s left of St. Louis Place neighborhood are served by either. So think about it and vote in the poll below.

This poll will close at 8pm tonight..

Wednesday I’ll share the results, what I see as the pros & cons of each, and if I’ve made up my mind — my preferred alternative.

— Steve Patterson

 

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