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Citizens for Modern Transit Comments on Rail for Highway 40

Over on CMT’s blog, Executive Director Tom Shrout has responded to the idea of placing a rail corridor in the center of highway 40 as it is being rebuilt:

Basically East-West Gateway Council of Governments concluded that the better alternative was to extend MetroLink to West County along Page Avenue. Personally I believe this is the best decision. Locating transit stops in the middle of highways is brutal for the transit customer since the autos whizzing by on each side creates a very unpleasant environment.

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Passenger Rail Service from St. Louis to Tulsa & OKC?

Tulsa’s leaders are meeting with Amtrak officials later this week to talk passenger rail service between their city and Oklahoma’s capital, Oklahoma City (my hometown). They are seeking a further connection to either Kansas City or St. Louis. Oklahoma was one of the few states that had no Amtrak service at all until 1999 when a connection to Fort Worth ended the 20-year stint without service. Tulsa now wants to get connected via rail.

A Tulsa to OKC line is interesting. The two cities are only 90 minutes apart by car and by air you’ll spend more time in security than in the air. Does the cost of service make sense? Possibly, both OKC and Tulsa have nice old stations and the rail service would bring passengers into the downtown areas as they once did. Also, the road traffic on I-44 between the two cities is considerable at all times. The rail would also connect Tulsa to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

But the reason for this post is to question coming into Missouri and if so to Kansas City or St. Louis? Selfishly I’m going to argue in favor of St. Louis because that would allow me to take the train back to visit relatives or for my 77-year old father to come visit me easily (his first time on a plane will be in a couple of weeks when we go to California). My dad says my maternal grandparents, both long deceased, came through St. Louis’ Union Station via the train on their way to Canada one year for vacation back in the 1960s. As I-44 replaced more than just the old Route 66, it also replaced the rail service connecting Oklahoma into St. Louis, Chicago and beyond.

As my Dad and I talked on the phone tonight he recalls seeing very fast trains moving through rural western Oklahoma and into Amarillo Tx (yes, I have relatives there too). But he commented that recently he has watched slow moving freight lines in Oklahoma City where the tracks are raising up and down due to their poor condition. I’ve observed similar here. You can’t have efficient passenger service on old and dangerous rail lines.

Are we willing to pay for the infrastructure for quality high-speed trains connecting St. Louis to cities like Chicago, Kansas City or Tulsa? Would people take a fast train rather than drive or fly? I like to think that I would but the only drawback is in these cities, except Chicago, life is no longer connected to the train stations. Yes, in a number of them we can get to other places but it is just not the same as leaving Union Station in Chicago and being connected to the entire city.


Downtown Still Going Strong; Neighborhoods and Inner Suburbs Need Leadership

I got a call from developer Kevin McGowan on Saturday, you may recall the last time he called me was to defend himself over the pets issue in his own building (see post). So McGowan calls me all excited and thought I’d be interested in his news — super fast loft sales. I’m not in the business of acting as a free PR service to profitable downtown developers but as we talked I saw enough in this that it is more than a press release for his firm.

OK, here is the story. McGowan | Walsh has been unsure about what the composition should be for their three buildings at Cupples Station located to the due west of the ballpark (#s 7, 8 & 9). They’ve hung banners on all three for “Ballpark Lofts” but they’ve been looking at office use instead of residential or in addition to. They began to market lofts in the center building — #8 to test the market. They’d been taking deposits to get on a list. Saturday they asked potential buyers to firm up and pick their units — wanting to really see if the buyers would stick around or seek their deposit back. Well, McGowan reports they sold 57 out of 68 units — in just over an hour. Needless to say, he was ecstatic. This represents, he said, over $12 million in loft sales.

So I began to ask more questions. The selling prices were roughly $146K to $400K for square footage ranging from 750sf to roughly 1,500sf. Just a few years ago lofts were easily ranging from 1,200sf to over 2,000sf but we are seeing a shift to smaller units. McGowan confirmed the smaller and more affordable units are where the market it going. Still compared to other lofts downtown these prices seem on the low side but there is a good reason for that. Parking.

You see, McGowan | Walsh did what is called “unbundled” parking — a parking management technique discussed in Todd Litman’s book Parking Management Best Practices whereby a parking space is not included with the unit. Some rental units downtown have unbundled parking that costs extra each month but I don’t know of any other for sale loft downtown where this is the case, save for perhaps the Marquette building by The Lawrence Group. Anyway, buyers at McGowan’s Ballpark Lofts were given the option of purchasing a parking space for the tidy sum of $18,000. Parking is expensive to provide and it is good for people to see the real cost by not hiding it in the purchase price.

McGowan said that roughly 20-25% of the buyers decided against a parking space which, to me, is a very big deal. McGowan credits the MetroLink stop a block away for the buyers willingness to forgo parking and presumably a car. They do have a free scooter with each loft so perhaps these buyers are comfortable with transit and the occasional scoot.

While they are still undecided about the other two buildings this latest round of fast sales may push them toward residential and away from commercial office space. McGowan fully acknowledges the impact of the new Busch Stadium on the marketability of his lofts. He also gives credit to two unbuilt projects — the ballpark village and Chouteau’s Lake Greenway.

The area needs something because the most activity is the on and off ramps that intrude into the area. I’d like to see these simplified a bit so some of the land can be recovered for in-fill construction. Hopefully residents of these lofts will be open to walking, biking or scooting up to City Grocers, which will be moving to a bigger space in the Syndicate Building late next year (see Biz Journal story).

But we have a housing bubble right? Well, yes and no. The “Creative Class” have been seeking urban living options for a while now and downtown St. Louis is the only choice for such a lifestyle in the region. As such, downtown continues to see demand whereas tract homes in the hinterlands are stacking up unsold. The fact is nationally families are becoming a smaller and smaller segment. Singles and empty nesters are the norm, especially as the baby boomer generation ages. For many boomers there kids are long out of the house, they are divorced or have lost their spouse. They 4-bedroom ranch in St. Charles County just doesn’t appeal to them. But this doesn’t mean downtown developers can write their own checks. They are learning buyers have a ceiling they are willing to spend, unlike in the ‘burbs where many buyers will become house poor to own as big of place as they can get. No, urban dwellers want to enjoy life and need money for travel and other things often given up to afford the big house in the suburbs and the two (or three) cars in the garage. This is resulting in smaller living spaces — with residents getting out on the streets more often rather than go from the den to the living room to the family room to the sitting room to the media room when they feel restless.

Transit is a big factor, in my view, toward the choice to buy a loft without a parking space. This is also a factor for the conservative bankers to finance a project without a space per unit — McGowan said MetroLink was a key part of showing their bankers they did not need a space for every unit.. Sadly, we have very few places downtown where that remains a reasonable option. The development future of downtown is in the west area between 18th and Jefferson and into Midtown toward Grand. The near north side has great potential with the vacant Pruitt-Igoe and the largely vacant area between Washington Avenue and the emerging Old North St. Louis neighborhood. Getting a permanent transit option to these locations will enable developers to use vacant land not as parking lots for adjacent buildings but for new in-fill construction. We are at the key point in the development around the CBD and without good localized transit (aka streetcar or guided tram).

And of course the bulk of the city is not downtown yet it only gets passing attention. The inner-ring of suburbs in St. Louis County are as urban as much of St. Louis and deserve renewed focus as well to offset losses in population many of them are experiencing. Natural market forces are coming together downtown with the trick being keeping the “leaders” and their outdated zoning and thinking out of the way. The same simply doesn’t work outside the immediate downtown area — the neighborhoods of the city and adjacent inner-ring suburbs need strong leadership to bring good zoning to them. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions it is just not happening. Downtown will continue to strengthen while the rest of the region is going to suffer from our 1960s urban edge growth mentality. Meanwhile, other regions in the U.S. will continue to outpace our region in terms of population and job growth.


Rail-Volution 2006: A Summary of My Experience Pt1

The 2006 Rail-Volution conference was exciting but exhausting. I did the math, I spent 23 hours in sessions between Sunday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon. The conference was quite intense.

The Conference:

This years conference was the 12th annual and it boosted over 1,000 attendees from something like 7 countries. St. Louis’ Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT) was among the sponsoring organizations of the conference and director Tom Shrout was a presenter. Other from St. Louis included a board member from CMT, a staff person from the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) and Clayton’s Director of Public Works, Paul L. Wojciechowski (Paul is both an engineer and a certified Planner). As a side note, we had a discussion about scooter parking in Clayton which I think we will get some attention along with more bicycle parking.

The 2007 Rail-Volution conference will be held in Miami next November. I’m not much of a beach person but the wealth of information from this conference makes it worth the effort. Although, I spent most of my time in really ugly conference rooms so I don’t know that it matters where the conference is held.


Streetcars were the big thing at the conference with a number of sessions on them. Seems municipalities around the country are realizing their light rail systems are great for moving large quantities of people across the region (say far suburbs to downtown) but that they do very little to spur quality urban development along their routes. The streetcar, however, can step in to fill in the gaps. Systems across the country are doing just that.

Streetcar advocates are the first to say they are slower than light rail, but that speed is not the point. These systems are often less than 5 miles in total length. The streetcars function as a development tool first, transportation second. Pro-streetcar developers from Portland say they never would have taken the risks they did in the Pearl District based on a bus line that could have easily gone away. Thanks in part to the streetcar, this former warehouse area has gone from zoning of 15 dwelling units per acre (dua) to over 125 dua. Reduced parking requirements thanks to the transit has lowered development costs. The streetcar connects to downtown Portland where residents can then take bus or light rail to other parts of the region for work or shopping. So in addition to prompting billions in development, the remainder of the transit system has also shown increased ridership.

Both Portland and Kenosha WI placed the streetcar in vacant areas with zero ridership! The transit choice combined with new zoning has created outstanding development opportunities which is why the private property owners in Portland were willing to contribute to the capital and operational costs of their system. In Kenosha, the city owned all the land in question and were able to plan for its development.

I believe taking a streetcar from the Union Station MetroLink stop through the western edge of downtown and up to the Pruitt-Igoe site, vacant for over 30 years now, would help create a new neighborhood where one once existed prior to failed urban renewal policies. If done right, it could be dense and vibrant. Similar efforts could be used to bring development near other MetroLink stops such as the new Manchester Rd. stop in Maplewood (an old inner-ring suburb), the St. Charles Rock Road stop with the link extending through Wellston in the county to the city along MLK. Run the line for 2-3 miles and extend toward downtown over the next 5-10 years.

To all the critics that say streetcars are just for tourists and it is just a nostalgia thing are ignoring the facts — streetcars have a proven track record of spurring private development at high returns on the capital investment. The same cannot be said of the light rail systems costing 4-6 times as much per mile as streetcars. The regional light rail system approach was fine when started in the 1970s and 80s when people were still fleeing to the suburbs — the rail was used to get them back downtown. Well, things are different today with families comprising a smaller and smaller percentage of U.S. households and more singles and empty nesters moving back toward walkable communities. Regions that don’t embrace streetcars will stagnate while those that connect people on the micro level will prosper.

Take the current planning on the North & South routes for St. Louis. The assumption is light rail in the street. But, to keep speeds up the service will only stop roughly every mile. Should one happen to live relatively close to an infrequent stop and seek to get downtown quickly that is great. But what if you live between two stops — a half mile walk either way. And then your destination is a mile from your house, between the next two stops. In this case the costly light rail system that speeds right by you does nothing to help you get a mile down the road. You see, light rail is not intended to serve local needs — its greatest strength is moving people long distances such as downtown to the airport. Strong pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are not built around light rail or bus service — they are built around streetcars.

All this is not to say we should not build any more light rail in the region, indeed we should. I think we can push more into North County from the current alignment near the airport — going up I-170 perhaps. Similarly, we can get to South County from the terminus of the newest alignment at Shrewsbury. The employment center of Westport can be served by connecting into the current system near Page or by a line coming north from Clayton along I-170. The reality is St. Louis city doesn’t have the tax base to “go it alone” on transit so we need county voters to help foot the bill. I’m fine with the county getting more costly and more longer to build light rail while the city would get less expensive but more development friendly streetcar lines.

In the various sessions at the conference focus was paid to funding streetcar systems. Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon spoke before the election on Tuesday about the intent behind the various funding programs. Preceding him at the podium were James Simpson, newly appointed Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration and his boss Mary E. Peters, Bush’s new U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Both promised improvements to the approval process for transit projects going through the Federal “New Starts” and “Small Starts” programs. Lobbying groups such as the New Starts Working Group are seeking improvements in the funding of projects not solely based on the speed at which systems move people but on the impact they will have on communities. Following the elections on Tuesday the mood was quite upbeat with many communities passing efforts to fund new transit projects. Pro-transit Congressman Earl Blumenauer will become the chair of the house committee on transportation. He will be pushing for changes at the FTA to look at criteria other than transit time reduction so that streetcars have a chance of getting some federal funding. One group gave away 200 copies of their new and highly detailed new book: Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century.

Among the issues raised by streetcar advocates is the federal process for funding approval. Besides taking years too long, something Administrator Simpson recognized as costing projects millions in delays, they favor Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail. The focus is on a reduction in travel time — commuter time. But, studies show commuting accounts for only 16% of household trips with the bulk of our trips being shorter runs to get groceries, do shopping, drop off the kids, or run errands. FTA guidelines currently look narrowly at reducing them time to get from A to B in a car which often leads to costly transit systems of little use for the bulk of our daily household trips. “Trips not counted” was an often heard phrase at the conference because the federal formulas simply do not account for the ‘trips not taken’ because of those living in compact urban environments thanks to streetcars — the trips taken on foot. The computer models for transit ridership also seem to not understand streetcars and often project ridership 30% or more below what actually ends up being the case. Getting the feds to accept more accurate modeling that accounts for many trips now being taken by foot or shorter trips taken by the streetcar is work that must still be done.

Further Reading/Resources:
• APTA: American Public Transit Association (director William Millar is a great speaker, very direct).
• Center for Transportation Excellent
• Reconnecting America (publisher of the Street Smart streetcar book).


During many of the sessions I attended you wouldn’t know it that I was attending a rail transit conference. Much of the discussion was on zoning matters. The zoning discussions focused on areas I mention frequently: urban form and density. One session was entirely on form-based codes.

One speaker from Denver talked about their new Main Street Zoning overlay. This new zoning code is being used in the Colfax area of Denver with great success. Denver recognized their zoning, much like St. Louis’, made the urban buildings we love illegal “non-conforming” and the auto-centric buildings we attempt to tolerate quite permissible. The new zoning overlay can be optionally adopted by property owners, and most have. This allows them to, when they are ready, to build a more urban form without having to jump through many layers of political hoops with elected officials holding out their hands asking for “donations.” By reducing parking requirements developers can get more on a parcel of land. By making parking optional, this reduces costs and makes places more affordable.

Throughout all the sessions it was stressed that transit alone would not do the trick to revitalizing communities. The key was modern zoning that helps create density and high-quality pedestrian environments.


Speakers from the mothership, Portland, talked about their streetcar project and how it came about. Speakers included folks from the city, the originally reluctant transit agency, and from the developer community. Together they forged a relationship that is mutually beneficial. They pointed out the high-density urban neighborhood that The Pearl District has become benefits even those that don’t use the streetcar — by having a walkable environment many are finding they can do many trips by foot. This brought up the benefits of walking, something many of us (me especially) need to do more of. They continued to street that the funding going into the streetcar was not just about moving people from point to point, the overall affect was much deeper. As housing costs near transit is often very costly Portland officials made 30% affordable housing part of the deal as well as mandating a percentage of rental and for sale units be under 700sf.

Speakers from Seattle talked about their new streetcar system that will open in 2007 as part of the South Lake Union re-development area. This area until the last year or two was basically low density warehouses between downtown Seattle and Lake Union. It had almost no residents and very little justification for increased bus service. But, with the streetcar and a good transit oriented development plan this overlooked area in Seattle is bustling with new high-density development — before the streetcar takes in its first paying customer!

I’ll have more in a future post on additional sessions from the conference, including a panel session on the future of cities — looking at changing demographics in our urbanized regions.


Something Big Happening in St. Louis Tuesday-Thursday but not about Baseball

Yes, Tuesday-Thursday the World Series comes to town. If all goes well, the St. Louis Cardinals will defeat the Detroit Tigers all three nights for a World Series win in St. Louis on Thursday evening. But those same three days involve something far less monumental but in the long run much better: future mass transit routes. Three meetings will be held in different parts of town. The presentations will be basically the same although each one will focus a bit more heavily on alternates in that part of town:


Tuesday, October 24, 2006 4:00 p.m.- 6:00 p.m. Presentation at 4:30 p.m. Regional Collaboration Center One Metropolitan Square, 12th Floor St. Louis, MO 63102


Wednesday, October 25, 2006 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Presentation at 5:30 p.m. Lift for Life Academy – Cafeteria 1731 S. Broadway St. Louis, MO 63104


Thursday, October 26, 2006 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Presentation at 5:30 p.m. Fifth Missionary Baptist Church Fellowship Hall 3736 Natural Bridge Avenue St. Louis, MO 63107

In the past I’ve attended all three but as I have class on Tuesday & Wednesday evenings I’ll only be able to make the Northside one on Thursday evening. If you want to be involved in shaping the future of St. Louis this is certainly a good way to do it.

The reality, however, is Metro is broke and needs more tax money simply to operate the current system. We must certainly plan for the future but until our leadership gets serious about funding priorities it is hard to take this too serious. Who among us will still be around in 15+ years when these proposed routes might have their ribbon cutting?

More information can be found at northsouthstudy.org