St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is throwing cold water on a proposal to build a North-South line for MetroLink.
Stenger's opposition isn’t going over well with some St. Louis officials, many of whom support the project as a way to spur economic development and bridge the region’s racial divide.
Earlier this year, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay threw his support behind a line that starts in north St. Louis County, goes through St. Louis and ends in south St. Louis County. He joined other regional leaders in advocating for a Federal Transit Administration grant to help move the project along. Proponents of the line say it would serve working-class residents who need public transportation. They also say it could encourage development in north St. Louis and north county, areas of the region with high concentrations of low-income African Americans.
But Stenger sent a letter of his own to the FTA stating that St. Louis County had “not endorsed the Northside-Southside MetroLink alignment.” Among other things, Stenger raised questions about the project's cost and whether it could fit into the current MetroLink infrastructure.
“A selective approach to regionalism will alienate St. Louis County from our partner governments in the region,” Stenger wrote. “We stand in opposition to Bi-State Development’s request to make the Northside-Southside alignment St. Louis region’s transit priority until a thorough analysis of all possible routes is completed.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Stenger said he is “certainly not ready and I don’t think the region is ready to call a particular route, whether it be the Northside-Southside or any other route, the region’s priority for public transportation.” Stenger’s predecessor, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, had been a fairly strong advocate for a MetroLink line to Maryland Heights.
“We need to have a much more robust debate than we have had. I don’t think there’s been much debate at all,” Stenger said. “I think it could be fairly characterized as, at this point, a unilateral declaration that the Northside-Southside route should be the priority route for the region for Metro. And that’s certainly not to say anything against the Northside-Southside route. But the process that has brought us to this point is a process that has not included discussion, commentary, debate from key stakeholders in our region.”
While East-West Gateway executive Jim Wild signed a letter to the FTA supporting a North-South MetroLink-related grant, Stenger said that the region's elected officials who vote at East-West Gateway need to decide which transit line to prioritize.
“We have a fledgling system that we already have a difficult time (funding). And with the introduction of a new line, new maintenance, new cars and new infrastructure, it’s going to be an expense,” Stenger said. “And it requires debate. That’s not to say that the Northside-Southside route might not be the preferred route after that debate and after a vote. But to declare it unilaterally as such is just not fair for the region -- or for the taxpayers in St. Louis County, who annually contribute $137 million to public transit. If you juxtapose what the city invests, which is $32 million a year, it calls for that debate even more.”
A new MetroLink line is years away from becoming a reality — and it would likely require a lot of money from the federal government. But Stenger’s comments, which started making the rounds on social media on Monday, were not well received by proponents of the North-South MetroLink project.
In a statement, Slay said that “expanding access to transit is not a zero-sum game. Investing in North-South MetroLink, which would serve both the city and the county, does not rule out investing in other transit lines.”
Slay's chief of staff Mary Ellen Ponder was more blunt in her written statement: “There is a huge difference between not signing on to a letter of support and writing a letter of opposition."
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Stenger chose to communicate with the city in this fashion,” she said. “It is embarrassing.”
St. Louis Alderman Scott Olgivie, D-24th Ward, said Stenger’s letter was “another example of how arbitrary political boundaries are really preventing the region from delivering the services and amenities that residents want.”
“When we’re doing public transportation planning, it’s a very long process to go from route to construction,” Ogilvie said. “Because these things are expensive, you really need to build the best possible route. And I think that all the data indicate that Northside-Southside route is by far the best route to connect people where they live to areas where there’s a high density of jobs.”
The Ferguson Commission had recommended a North-South MetroLink in a call to action, and former Commission co-chairman Starsky Wilson criticized Stenger’s letter in a Tweet yesterday. When asked about whether his letter undermined one of the commission’s goals, Stenger replied: “I would say that the Ferguson Commission report is a very important report. But it is only one voice in really what is more of a chorus than anything in our region.”
“All of the voices need to be heard. Everyone needs to sit around a table,” Stenger continued.
As to his relationship with Slay, Stenger said, “This probably will not be the last time that regional leaders will differ — I certainly understand how this could make news.” But he added that "we will continue our relationship as we always have.”