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TRANSITion: From horses to high speed, the history of the region's mass transit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2010 - The numbers paint Metro as a big-time operation. In the fiscal year that ended in June 2008 -- the last full year before a budget squeeze cut service -- the transit service boarded 33.4 million bus passengers and almost 20 million MetroLink passengers.

That's bigger than anything Erastus Wells could have imagined when he arrived in St. Louis back in 1843. In that year, Wells (he's the man for whom Wellston is named) partnered with Calvin Case to hitch horses to an omnibus and pull it along the cobblestoned streets of downtown St. Louis.

Thus was mass transit born in St. Louis.

Now, more than a century and a half later, Wells' successors are asking voters in St. Louis County to approve on April 6 a half-cent hike in the local sales tax. Metro officials say the increase would raise about $80 million a year. Half would go to restore service to its pre-cut level, and half would go to expand service -- more MetroLink rails and speedy new bus rapid transit routes.

Those officials would like to boost ridership in the same way that Wells and Case did back in the 19th century. By 1850, they were running 90 buses along four main lines, using 100 employees and 450 horses. In the daytime, passengers at any given stop had to wait just four minutes for the next horse-drawn bus.

A trip along the cobblestones must have been bumpy at best for riders and hard on the horses, too. So on July 4, 1859, Wells' Missouri Railway Co. opened trackage on Olive Street between Fourth and 10th streets downtown. Now, the ride went smoothly, with less wear on the horses.

Rails caught on. By 1881, the city had almost 120 miles of track, served by 496 cars pulled by 2,280 horses and mules and hauling 19.6 million passengers a year. In the 1870s, Wells pushed service into the suburbs, first to Normandy and then to Florissant.

Shortly afterward, in the mid-1880s those horses and mules started reaching the end of the line. First, cable cars hooked to steam-powered lines appeared on some routes. But the capital costs for cable were high -- so high that electricity quickly passed steam as a power source.

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley

In the 1890s, transit companies here switched to the trolley cars immortalized by Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis." (But only a stiff round of bribes in March 1890 persuaded the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to strike the city's ban on overhead wires along downtown streets.)

Starting in 1899, the city's two dozen or so transit companies began to consolidate as United Railways. That led the following year to an ugly strike that turned violent one day, killing three and wounding 14. After five months, the strikers folded.

But the transit bosses had their own problem -- the capital costs of their routes. "As operating entities, they were profitable," says Andrew Young of Creve Coeur, author of such books as "When Missouri Took the Trolley" and "Streets and Streetcars of St. Louis: A Sentimental Journey."

But Young adds, "They could never, ever make much of a dent on their underlying debt for capital costs." United Railways went bankrupt soon after World War I. Not until 1939 did its successor, St. Louis Public Service Co., emerge from its second bankruptcy.

Capital costs help to explain why buses began elbowing streetcars aside in the 1920s. Young says, "Money and flexibility were both incentives in switching from trolleys to buses." After all, buses require no rails and can run anywhere on streets paved by tax dollars.

Also, Young says, St. Louisans of the 1920s looked at buses as fashionable -- "the latest and most modern thing." Still, streetcars stayed around through WW II and beyond. Not until May 21, 1966, did the last streetcar make the last run in St. Louis.

The public service option

By then, the area's mass transit had a different driver. In April 1963, the Bi-State Development Agency bought out St. Louis Public Service and 14 other lines, merging them as the Bi-State Transit System (renamed as Metro in 2003). Bi-State included St. Louis, St. Louis County and Metro East.


With Bi-State's takeover, mass transit went from being a business to being a public service. Unlike users of other public services -- schools, say, or fire protection -- mass transit users have to pay for their rides. But fares cover only a fifth of Metro's operating costs. For most of the rest, taxpayers pick up the tab, mainly through local sales taxes.

In July 1973, a half-cent transit sales tax kicked in across St. Louis and St. Louis County. The cash let Bi-State cut the fare to 25 cents from 45. (Today, the basic bus fare is $2, with the MetroLink fare $2.25.)

Light rail returned to transit thinking in the 1980s in the form of 17 miles of MetroLink between Lambert Field and East St. Louis. In October 1988, Bi-State signed the first construction contract -- and in June 1993, the first leg opened. In a twist of history, light rail was perceived as "the latest and most modern thing," far more fashionable than buses.

That November, voters in St. Clair County approved their own sales tax to pay for pushing MetroLink east to Scott Air Force Base. Indeed, MetroLink proved so popular that in August 1994, voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County okayed another quarter-cent tax to expand MetroLink, which today has grown to 45.9 miles.

Bumps on the road

True, MetroLink hit some voting-day bumps. In 1996, St. Charles County voters derailed a tax proposal that would have taken the rails to St. Peters. The next year, Madison County voters likewise killed a transit tax proposal, and St. Louis County voters said no to another quarter-cent tax.

City voters approved that same quarter-cent tax, but collections have been put on the shelf until county voters come through with their own tax. If they say yes on April 6, the city's tax will also rise.

In 1999, the federal government cut off operating aid to urban transit systems. Although the feds continued to pay a big share of building such systems, operations like Bi-State were on their own for running the systems.

The squeeze was quick to come. In October 2001, Bi-State had to boost fares and cut service. As the decade wore on, the problems piled on. Bi-State built its Shrewsbury line with local money. The reason: Federal capital money was already going to the St. Clair County expansion, and nobody thought Washington would pay for yet another project here.

But construction ran late, and way over budget. In 2004, the newly renamed Metro fired -- and then sued -- designers of the Shrewsbury line, which finally opened in 2006. The next year, a jury in St. Louis County rebuffed Metro.

There were casualties. Metro's chief, Larry Salci, resigned under fire. And in November 2008, county voters narrowly said no to a half-cent transit tax, leading to big service cuts in March 2009.

A bit more than half the cuts were restored after Missouri gave Metro a one-time grant of $12 million in federal stimulus money. But that money will run out by the end of June.

Thus, the sales tax on the April 6 ballot. If it passes, Metro promises to restore services to 2008 levels -- and to expand in the future what Erastus Wells began so many years ago with his horse-drawn buses.

Harry Levins is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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