Twenty years ago today, Metro St. Louis slid open the doors for the first ride on its new light rail system. Although the system was built on an existing freight line, the path to its existence was not clear or easy.
"Until the very day that it opened, people did not believe this system was going to exist," said Les Sterman, supervisor of the Southern Illinois Flood Prevention District and former executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. He worked for years to make the MetroLink a reality.
"St. Louis had been without rail transit for a lot of years at that point," said Sterman. "People would picture the NYC subway system, which at the time, remember this was the '80s, was not considered safe or comfortable. They had thoughts of railroad trains rumbling down the middle of our streets. Also there were social issues, racial and others, about connecting some of our neighborhoods."
Judging by ridership numbers, MetroLink has been a resounding success. Initial projections predicted a ridership of 3 million by the year 2000. MetroLink recorded 8 million riders in its first year. Today, the light rail line averages 17 million riders a year.
Efforts are underway to bolster economic development near MetroLink, called transit oriented development (TOD).
After listening to the story, Metro Vice President of Economic Development John Langa reiterated his position in the story that the transit system has indeed provided and continues to provide economic development. Among the areas of potential development, he said were residential areas.
"Studies on average shows that it costs between $7,000 and $13,000 a year to own a car," said Langa. "If you want to save that money and you want to live near transit and ride the rail, that's real money in your pocket....And we're seeing interest in that across income strata."
Plans for the future include further integration among the MetroBus, MetroLink and Call-a-Ride systems, and further extensions of the line, said Jerry Blair, director of transportation at East-West Gateway Council of Governments. There have been various proposals for expansions over the years, but the most recent design studies propose a North South line through the city and a Clayton to Westport rail-right-away.
Any such extensions, however, are years away and dependent on finding funds, said Blair.
In the meantime, callers were interested in improving access for pedestrians, especially in winter. Metro Chief Operating Officer Ray Friem said they are looking in to adding new "modal-type" shuttles in a three-quarter to a mile-and-a-half radius around MetroLink stations to aid in transportation during poor weather.
"We're studying the concept right now, as some new technologies make the cost go down," said Friem. "But it is still pretty expensive. I can't promise exactly when that would happen." For now, he promised to include keeping sidewalks clear in the agenda of planning meetings for the winter months.