St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is proposing studies for three potential expansions to MetroLink – but they don't include a North/South line that St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay strongly supports.
It’s part of an increasingly public disagreement between the leaders of St. Louis and St. Louis County about how to expand public transportation throughout the region.
Last summer, Stenger asked for public input on what would be the best MetroLink expansion to study. He put forth three potential options: One that went westward to the Maryland Heights area; another that went through north St. Louis County; and a third that snaked through south St. Louis County. After he received what he classified as a sizable response, Stenger announced on Thursday he would ask the St. Louis County Council to approve funding for studying all three routes.
"So as the months progressed, we were trying to make a determination of which route we would choose to study. And we decided to study all three," Stenger said. "We thought that was the fairest way to move forward so we would have details at a very high level for all of the routes. And that way regionally, we could make a determination for what the priority would be for the routes."
Once the council approves funding, Stenger said East-West Gateway would send out a Request for Proposals for consultants to lead the study. Once a consultant is chosen the project, he said, these studies would take about a year to complete.
Stenger did not include North/South MetroLink expansion that starts in north St. Louis County, moves through the city and ends in south St. Louis County. Slay announced earlier this year that he's launched an effort to study the line.
Stenger and Slay have recently had a notable divergence regarding that project. Stenger said he has no problem with the city studying the North/South line, but he disagrees with it being deemed a regional priority. (Read more about that by clicking here.)
“As a person who is an elected leader of a million people, I tend to look at things a little differently,” Stenger said. “I look at ... what is in the best interest of my residents and my taxpayers? And … I look at it on what our transportation needs are. And I look at how we can best serve the county. I also look regionally to say ‘How do we all move forward as a region and how do we move forward as a county?’”
Among other things, Stenger has said that the region's elected officials who vote at East-West Gateway need to decide which transit line to prioritize. He’s also questioned the North/South line’s cost and whether it would connect with the light rail service’s existing routes.
“[East-West Gateway] is the body that determines what regional priorities are. We don’t determine them,” Stenger said. “The county doesn’t determine those priorities, even though we are the largest funder in the region of public transportation at a $137 million versus the city’s $32 million. We are the largest. But we’re not out to try and bully anyone or anything like that. We just want due process.”
D.J. Wilson, a spokesman for East-West Gateway, said that once the County Council takes action, “a request for qualifications goes out from his agency. He said at some point, “the East-West Gateway board of directors (which includes Stenger and Slay) would approve East-West Gateway doing/supervising the studies.”
Call up the Doodle Poll?
Given Slay’s public preference of the North/South route, it may be difficult to see at least one of the possible lines gaining much traction: The “South” one would go through southwest St. Louis along the River Des Peres. (By comparison, the North/South line would go through parts of southeast St. Louis.)
Asked if that reality made that proposal dead on arrival, Stenger replied: “I wouldn’t say that.”
“I think all of the routes, even if they’re solely county routes, require regional cooperation,” Stenger said. “Because it can’t be forgotten that the city does make a contribution, although it’s smaller than the county’s -- maybe four times. They still make a contribution to public transportation in the region. And so their voices need to be heard.
“On the South route, that would require regional cooperation,” he added. “But all them require some level of regional cooperation, as does Northside/Southside.”
Backers of the North/South line, like Alderman Cara Spencer, contend the route would “put the residents of those areas in direct connection with the job growth that’s occurring through the central corridor in our region.” She added that many people in her 20th Ward who are unemployed say their trouble finding work “comes down to transportation issues – and having access to those jobs.”
“I think it’s pretty significant. I think it’s pretty dangerous,” said Spencer, referring to Stenger’s recent statements and actions on MetroLink expansion. “Because the routes that County Executive Stenger is looking at serve primarily the county. And the one that does serve the city serves the city along the county border in perhaps the least densely populated part of the city that we have.
“What people don’t realize is [St. Louis County] holds the purse strings here,” she added, pointing to how county residents voted in 2010 for a proposition aimed at expanding MetroLink.
Spencer said her message for Stenger would be "that we are better together. And we really need to start working together as a region.”
“And to look only at routes that serve St. Louis County is really a disservice to the entire region,” Spencer said. “We are the economic hub. We are smaller as St. Louis city, but we are a vital part of the region. And so I would really encourage Steve Stenger to send out a Doodle Poll and figure out when all of us can get in the same room and meet and prioritize something that will benefit the entire region instead of just one part of it.”
When asked if it would be possible to build a North/South line without St. Louis County’s support, Stenger said “that’s going to be partially up to the city.”
“The city may have those funds and an idea of how they’re going to get those funds. You may have a Northside/Southside route and you may have a county route. Or maybe two county routes. Who knows?” Stenger said. “I think we need to think large and think expansively about transportation. So we could have two routes. And once again, all of these routes are part of a regional transit system. The study of these routes is a good thing. And the fact that the city wants to move forward with a route is a great thing. There’s energy behind public transportation. The fact that the county is excited about their routes is a great thing.”